America is getting serious about coal – Canada needs to get serious about tar sands

On the eve of President Obama's trip to Canada, the Canadian government is claiming that America and Canada share the same problems with dirty fuels such as coal and tar sands. Tar sands and coal are both very dirty fuels. But the U.S. is getting serious about regulating and phasing out coal - whereas Canada is not taking action to regulate the expanding tar sands oil industry.

Earlier this week, regarding protections for tar sands oil development from global warming regulations, the Canadian government was reported as saying that Canada is "only seeking the same treatment that the United States will have to apply to its own coal." The government seems to want Canada's oil industry to get "the same kind of credit for efforts to make the transition to less-polluting production that the U.S. will have to give to its coal-burning power plants."

Canada's proposition that it's OK for its tar sands to increase emissions in the future because U.S. coal increased emissions in the past puts us on the wrong path. We need to be reducing everyone's emissions going forward.

Canadian tar sands are a huge source of new emissions that are planned to increase in the future, while U.S. coal is mostly about existing emissions. There has been a wave of abandoned plans for coal plants especially in the last few weeks. Investors and policy-makers are not interested in such dirty electricity generation when they know that limits to global warming pollution are coming. 

The plan in most U.S. proposals to curb global warming pollution is to place coal-fired power plants under a declining carbon emissions cap. The electricity sector will do most of the heavy lifting in this scenario, especially in the early years. Eventually, coal-fired power plants will have to phase out or get rid of their carbon emissions. Many of the climate bills that we have seen proposed include some give away of allowances for carbon emissions in the first years to help cover the costs of implementation. But this is mostly meant to go to electricity providers, so that consumers do not get hit with higher costs while the industry is becoming more energy efficient.

Canada seems to be misinterpreting the possibility of allowances as an exemption for coal. Coal will in no way be exempted under current plans for regulating global warming pollution. Coal is meant to be under greenhouse gas limits and U.S. coal-fired power plants will need to reduce emissions. Will Canada be able to say the same for the growing sector of tar sands oil development?

With President Obama in office, there is a growing gulf between Canada and America on how to fight global warming. Tar sands oil development does not fit in the new energy vision that is making people feel hopeful for the first time in many years on both sides of the border.