Tar sands raises sticky issues as Canadian Prime Minister meets with President Obama

With Canadian federal elections a likelihood for this fall, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper would benefit politically from a feel good photo-op or joint announcement with the most popular politician in Canada: Barack Obama. Prime Minister Harper will be in D.C. next week, meeting with President Obama on September 16 at the White House. Climate and energy are expected to be on the agenda and expansion of the Canadian tar sands oil production as a U.S. fuel source will likely be a major focus of attention, even if it is not an official agenda item.  President Obama, as a gracious host, is unlikely to overtly oppose the rapid expansion of the tar sands, for which Prime Minister Harper is an avid champion. However, it is critical that the President avoid any actions, agreements, or joint statements that would facilitate Canadian tar sands oil production.

Prime Minister Harper may be seeking a number of U.S. actions that would promote expansion of tar sands oil production - U.S. actions that would lead indirectly to significant increases in Canadian and American emissions of global warming pollution.  Canada may be seeking:

  • Joint cooperation on applying carbon capture and storage (CCS) to tar sands.
  • Approval of permits for more pipelines to bring tar-sands bitumen to U.S. refineries and access to U.S. natural gas to fuel tar sands extraction.
  • Abandonment of U.S. legal requirements to account for the full life-cycle carbon emissions of fuel.
  • Distortion of the security debate in order to expand tar sands imports into the United States.

The United States should not agree to any of these possible requests. Here is why and what the United States should do instead:

1)  Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).  The two leaders agreed earlier this year to cooperate on development of CCS technology.  The United States should focus joint U.S.-Canada cooperation on applying CCS to electricity generation sources and should explicitly not support CCS projects in connection with new or expanded tar sands oil production. CCS would only partially address the carbon emissions, would not address the emissions from the end use of tar sands oil, and would not address other environmental and public health concerns of tar sands oil extraction. There is no CCS in place in the tar sands and is unlikely to be in the foreseeable future.  

(2) Pipelines. The United States has permitted the cross-border construction of two major pipelines - Transcanada's Keystone pipeline and Enbridge's Alberta Clipper pipeline - that will carry tar sands bitumen for upgrading and refining in the United States. The proposed Alaska natural gas pipeline meant to bring natural gas to the United States, may end up fueling tar sands extraction.  This would perversely result in increasing rather than decreasing emissions.  The President should signal that further pipeline approvals will hinge on Canada adopting a strong cap on greenhouse gas emissions, on Alaska natural gas not being used to fuel tar sands oil production, and other environmental safeguards being put in place in the tar sands.

(3) Life cycle carbon emissions accounting. Canada has lobbied against California's low carbon fuel standard and against the federal fuel procurement provision of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, section 526. Both of these mechanisms require life cycle greenhouse gas emissions accounting for fuels - that means that the high greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands oil extraction in Canada are counted.  Not fully accounting for the production emissions from the tar sands will unfairly disadvantage measures aimed at homegrown, environmentally sustainable transportation solutions. Such measures could save over $4 trillion in oil expenditures by 2020. The President should protect existing legal requirements for life cycle assessment of fuels carbon emissions and should promote wider use of this mechanism.

(4) Energy security. Canada argues that tar sands oil is a source of fuel that will contribute to U.S. security. However, the best energy security policy is aggressively to implement energy efficiency and other measures that reduce our oil dependency. These and other measures could reduce our daily demand for oil by 4 million barrels per day by 2020 - thus making expansion of tar sands unnecessary for the U.S. fuel needs. The climate security risks associated with development of the tar sands and other high carbon fuels require that we find cleaner, low carbon alternatives. The President should acknowledge that the best energy and climate security comes from decreasing U.S. dependence on oil, including Canadian tar sands oil.