Canada - pushing arguments of the past to support their tar sands oil industry

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will arrive in Washington D.C. late this week for meetings with President Obama and other U.S. officials. As in the past, energy will be on the agenda. For the United States, this means clean energy. As President Obama said in his State of the Union speech, part of energy security is breaking our dependence on oil and moving forwards to clean and renewable energy. However in recent years, for Canada, energy has meant promoting the dinosaur of tar sands oil – even to the extent of undermining efforts by other countries to build a clean energy future. Canadian officials these days often use antiquated arguments that environmental protection will harm economic development to justify their support of an increasingly destructive and risky expansion of tar sands.

One of the oddest aspects of the Canadian push for expansion of the dirty and destructive tar sands oil is how it has caused Canada to turn away from its past commitments to environmentally sustainable development. At a time when other countries around the world are embracing the imperative that economic development depends on a healthy environment, Canada claims that it cannot afford the luxury of doing what is right for the environment in the face of its desire to rapidly expand the tar sands oil industry. Canada is not only pushing a fuel of the past, it is pushing arguments of the past – that environmental protection holds back economic development. Canada does this in the face of a deepening global consensus that you cannot have long-lasting and secure economic development without protection of our land, air, water and health.

I am in India right now where world leaders are gathered at the annual Delhi Sustainable Development Summit. The theme of the Summit is “tapping local initiatives and tackling gobal inertia.” This morning Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said that modern societies cannot get away from the fact that damaging the environment for gain today, damages the well-being of future generations. He called on us to have environmentally sustainable development be more than a buzzword, saying that “charting a new pathway was not beyond our collective imaginations.” At the CEO forum, the theme from business leaders from around the world was that bad environmental projects mean bad business. We heard CEO after CEO say that they found that clean energy practices meant stronger businesses and stronger communities. These statements are what we would expect to find almost twenty years after the first Earth Summit on environmentally sustainable development. It is Canada’s stance that has been disturbingly backward-looking and which clearly will not serve the Canadian economy or the global economy well.

So, when Prime Minister Harper comes to Washington this week. I hope that he will hear that the United States is committed to energy decisions that move us forwards, not backwards. Specifically, U.S. officials should:

  • Recognize the many negative environmental and social impacts of tar sands oil industry and the U.S. responsibility as a driver of expansion of the tar sands extraction.
  • Let Canada know that approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is meeting growing opposition in the U.S. and that there are many more steps in the information gathering and consultation process before a decision can be made.
  • Clarify that carbon capture and storage (CCS) tar sands projects cannot be considered “clean” energy projects and that Canada cannot use the phantom of future CCS in the tar sands to justify expansion.
  • Tell Canada that the Administration stands behind the U.S. government’s fuel procurement law (EISA S. 526) that requires that the full life-cycle carbon emissions for a fuel be accounted for and that this law does apply to tar sands along with other high-carbon fuels.
  • Ask Canada to stop lobbying against U.S. clean energy initiatives such as the low carbon fuel standard that is being implemented in California and developed in other regions across the country.
  • Emphasize that the best energy and climate security comes from decreasing U.S. dependence on oil and moving towards a clean energy future.

Taking part in the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit this week is a good window into how various countries are trying to move onto the path towards a clean energy future. When developed countries such as Canada try to hold back clean energy progress to benefit their growing oil industry, they are contributing to the very “global inertia” that is being scrutinized at this conference. The United States as the main consumer of that oil has a responsibility for the repercussions of tar sands oil production and use. The Obama Administration has made a commitment to build a clean energy future that benefits us economically. The vision of a clean energy economy is one of long-term energy that won’t run out and will not cause strife or the many problems associated with climate change. Consistent with this vision for the future, U.S. officials should send a clear message when meeting with Prime Minister Harper that the American commitment to clean energy does not include support for expansion of tar sands oil.