The new House climate and energy bill takes us one step further from dependence on expanded tar sands oil production

On Friday, the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act passed in the House signifying a major step forward for the United States in tackling climate change and building a clean energy economy. The ACES bill provides the funding to lower our demand for oil by around 1.4 million barrels a day by 2020. There is still more work ahead of us, but passage of this bill in the House marks one more critical step on our path to a clean energy economy. For the tar sands oil industry, this new bill sends a signal that our transportation future does not include expansion of tar sands oil strip-mining and drilling in Canada's Boreal forests and wetlands. The high environmental costs of tar sands oil mean that it does not have a place in a clean energy economy.

The new bill does not specifically limit tar sands oil imports to the United States, but it heralds a new approach that means less tolerance for locking the United States into dependence on fuels that not only have higher greenhouse gas emissions in the production process, but then contribute again to global warming as they are burned in our gas tanks.

ACES sets a framework for a clean energy economy. Despite this new reality, the tar sands interests lobbying in the U.S. Congress still seem fixated on weakening or repealing one of the earlier steps towards curbing global warming in the United States. The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA 2007) section 526 ensures that federal agencies do not add to the carbon in the atmosphere by entering into contracts to purchase synthetic, alternative, or nonconventional fuels with higher global warming-related emissions than conventional fuels. Synthetic and non-conventional fuels include tar sands, oil shale and liquid coal.

Even though it was an early signal of our concern in the United States with fuels that make global warming worse, EISA section 526 has been under constant attack since it passed - largely from interests that want to see an expansion of tar sands oil imports to the United States. What is incredible is that now in 2009 with a renewed commitment in the United States to fight climate change and to move towards a new energy economy, this same little provision remains under attack. Let's take a closer look and see what all the fuss is about. How are tar sands interests getting away with trying to undermine one of the first provisions in the United States to help control global warming?

U.S. legislators have made it clear that EISA section 526 does include tar sands oil. In May 2008, Chairman Henry Waxman wrote to clarify this, saying, "section 526 applies to fuels derived from unconventional petroleum sources such as tar sands, which produce significantly higher greenhouse gas emissions than are produced by comparable fuel from conventional petroleum sources."

So while the new U.S. climate and energy bill is passing the House, what is happening to section 526? The newly passed ACES leaves it alone - no weakening or repeal. Yet, the Senate energy bill includes an amendment (Bingaman-Brownback) that would weaken Section 526 by allowing federal agencies to purchase dirtier high carbon fuels that are generally available. The immediate ramifications of lifting this ban would be to give federal agencies the opportunity to purchase dirty fuels derived from Canadian tar sands in certain circumstances. This amendment provides an exception to the government's obligation to avoid fuels that significantly exacerbate global warming. There have been numerous attempts to weaken or repeal section 526 in the House as well - to the point where in a defensive maneuver, the House defense authorization bill included an amendment of Section 526 (Connolly) that is meant to clarify the provision in line with Chairman Waxman's original clarification letter.

At this point, with tar sands oil the only commercially viable and generally available unconventional fuel, the weakening attempts are clearly aimed at the issue of whether we increase our dependence on tar sands oil or not. Both amendments provide exemptions under which the federal government may purchase unconventional fuels, but there are two a major differences between them.

The key language in the Connolly amendment is: "Subsection (a) does not prohibit a Federal agency from entering into a contract to purchase a generally available fuel that is not an alternative or synthetic fuel or predominantly produced from a non-conventional petroleum source if ..." The Connolly amendment would not allow contracts with refineries that predominantly take tar sands oil. In practice, this means that the federal government could not contract with refineries that process more than approximately 51% tar sands oil. The amendment further states that the contracts may specifically be for nonconventional fuels, nor have the purpose of obtaining nonconventional fuels. And it states that the contract may not provide incentives for refinery upgrades or expansions to all a refinery to use or increase use of nonconventional fuels.

The key language in the Bingaman-Brownback amendment is: "Subsection (a) shall not prohibit a Federal agency from entering into a contract to purchase a generally available fuel that is produced, in whole or in part, from a nonconventional petroleum source if..." This means that tar sands could be purchased as it is generally available, but it would be subject to certain exemptions. The exemptions in this amendment are similar to the ones described above in the Connolly language, with one important difference: under the Bingaman-Brownback amendment the contract may not provide incentives "excluding compensation at market prices for the purchase of fuel purchased" for a refinery upgrade or expansion.

The fight over U.S. federal government fuel procurement will take place in the coming weeks in various bills in the House and the Senate. But there is a bigger point for the tar sands than to what extent the U.S. federal government can contract for tar sands oil. While tar sands interests fight over section 526, the United States is moving steadily forward with reducing our demand for oil and building a clean energy economy. Tar sands oil extraction not only puts large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, it strip-mines Boreal forests and wetlands, creates large dams of toxic wastewater, fragments and destroys migratory bird habitat, and threatens the health of downstream and downwind communities. Tar sands oil extraction is truly an industry of the past and has no place in a clean energy future as symbolized by the new House climate and energy bill.