Tar sands oil undermines green jobs in U.S. and Canada

Today, I’ll be speaking at the Green Jobs, Good Jobs conference in DC.  When we first envisioned the topic for the U.S.-Canada climate policy panel, we did not realize that we would be in the midst of a political impasse over climate legislation in the United States. At that time some months back, the Canadian federal government was saying it would wait to see what the United States would do and follow. We were hopeful that we’d have comprehensive climate legislation on its way in the United States which would, in turn, force the Canadian federal government to live up to its promise and introduce its own federal climate legislation.

Yet here we are in early May with the U.S. climate legislation in limbo and federal climate legislation in Canada still on hold. We need to reexamine what we can do to put climate change front and center on the political agenda in both of our countries. And we need to come to an understanding of what is keeping our countries from moving climate legislation forward.

So why don’t we have federal climate legislation in the United States and Canada? I believe that the answer can be found in the undermining of our clean energy economy by our continued dependence on fossil fuels. We need to acknowledge that our continued dependence on fossil fuels is not good for our health, not good for the environment, not good for our economy, and not good for our security. The United States and Canada each need comprehensive climate legislation that places a strict limit on greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors. Both of our countries also need measures that reduce our use of fossil fuels – especially for transportation.  Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is a choice that will not only free us from ever more dirty, dangerous and expensive fossil fuels, but will increase our investment in clean energy jobs and economic development and security at home.

The BP deep oil rig accident in the Gulf Coast is a tragic example of the very high dangers and costs of going after fuels that in the past we considered too difficult, dangerous or expensive to access. The oil rig accident was a dramatic incident and we are still groping to understand the impacts in terms of lives, health, local economies, and wildlife. Yet these types of costs are evident in all of the newer efforts of the fossil fuel industry to go after harder to access coal (think mountain top removal for devastation and recent coal mining accidents for safety issues) and harder to access oil (think 1,600 ducks dying after a single incident where they landed on a tar sands mine waste pond in Canada).  Yet oil companies are putting dirty, dangerous and expensive sources of fuel such as tar sands oil forward as a “transition” fuel to the clean energy economy. This is a wrong choice given that looking just at tar sands oil, we see higher greenhouse gas emissions, yearly leakage of an incredible 1 billion gallons of poisonous waste from the tar sands tailings ponds, and downstream community public health concerns about elevated rates of cancers that are linked to petroleum pollution. Alberta has an active public relations campaign to promote its tar sands oil deposits and to lobby against legislation that might curtail tar sands expansion – in the United States and more recently in Europe. Moreover, the Canadian federal government and Alberta are encouraging the United States to build an infrastructure of tar sands pipelines, including the latest proposed TransCanada Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, and are encouraging the United States to expand tar sands oil refining capacity. Canada uses the argument of energy security, claiming that Canadian oil is safe oil. This is a false security. In a world where climate security is one of our greatest threats, the truth is we gain energy security when we stop being dependent on oil. The best energy, climate and economic security is home-grown, clean energy.

All of this stands in stark contrast to last week’s U.S. approval of the East Coast’s first big offshore wind farm. The United States has already taken a number of steps to encourage clean energy production and this is an area where Canada is lagging behind. The Pembina Institute estimates that in 2010, the United States is set to outspend Canada nearly 18:1 per capita on renewables and more than 8:1 per capita overall on clean energy programs. A new report by Environmental Defence Canada shows that Canada is falling behind by approximately 66,000 new, green jobs because of this lag in clean energy investment. Yet, in the United States we also need to do much, much more. For both of our countries to be competitive in the future, we need a strong investment in clean energy that will bring millions of jobs (with 1.7 million jobs already committed in existing and proposed U.S. legislation) for carpenters, electricians, steelworkers, machinists, wind turbine technicians and electric car manufacturers. Instead, over the next 15 years, an anticipated US$379 billion will be invested by energy companies in Alberta’s tar sands – money that a recent WWF-UK report shows would benefit us more if put into clean energy instead.

Since the political stalemate occurred over the Senate climate bill – ironically, the very weekend I was helping with the Earth Day climate rally on the National Mall – the number of voices calling for new climate legislation has been increasing daily. In the past week, business executives, labor unions, religious groups, and environmental organizations have said loud and clear that they want our lawmakers to pass a clean energy and climate bill now.

We can’t sit by and watch our future be held hostage to political maneuvering. Climate should not be a partisan issue and our future should not depend on oil companies’ love of their profits. Curbing climate change is about creating jobs at home, protecting the health of our children, saying no to fossil fuels, and trusting in our ability to move quickly to a clean energy economy.

The question is: Will our two countries acknowledge that fossil fuels are not the right choice and instead give us a real choice for a healthy and prosperous future.