Jonathan Hayward/ CP Photo
Tar sand protests could have strong impact on Obama’s energy policy.
President-elect Barack Obama has inherited the inbox from hell, but you could practically smell the fear in some quarters as he listed his priorities: "two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century."
There will be general rejoicing if he can end the wars and the economic crisis, but "a planet in peril" is shorthand for climate change, and some people's oxen will be severely gored if he acts decisively.
First off the mark with an attempt to limit the damage was Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The day after the U.S. election, the PM proposed a joint U.S.-Canada pact on climate change whose real purpose is to protect Canada's "dirty oil."
That's the phrase Obama's advisers have used to describe oil imported from Alberta's tar sands, whose production leaves a bigger carbon footprint than conventional oil.
How much bigger? That's practically a state secret, but unofficial estimates suggest that extracting oil from the tar sands produces as much as three times more carbon dioxide. The U.S. is the main market for that oil, and American legislators have begun targeting it as an easy way of cutting emissions.
Last year the U.S. Congress passed a law barring federal agencies from buying oil from tar sands, oil shales or coal-to-oil projects. California has passed regulations requiring fuel suppliers to reduce the emissions from the fuel they sell - and to account for those right back to the original production source.
So far, not so bad. After all, the U.S. government buys only 2 per cent of the oil consumed in the country, and California has only one-sixth of America's vehicles. But this could be just the thin edge of the wedge.
A national ban on the import of unconventional oil would be an attractive and politically cheap move for Obama, who needs to show his commitment but will be seriously short of money for big projects.
Harper's strategy is transparent. He wants a climate change pact with the U.S. in which Alberta's "dirty oil" is exempted from controls on the grounds that it contributes to that other American national goal, "energy independence." (The subtext is that Canada is not really foreign, though of course Harper cannot put it quite so bluntly.) In return, he would negotiate a common cap-and-trade system.
Obama's response will depend on where he is on the learning curve about climate change strategies. Does he realize that Alberta's oil is America's for as long as the U.S. wants it, deal or no deal?
More importantly, has he been seduced by the strategic myth of "energy independence"?
Since the Arab oil embargo at the end of the 1973 war in the Middle East, "energy independence" has been a mantra in the U.S., although little progress has been made. But back then, the Arab oil exporters had smaller populations with low economic expectations, and could easily forgo oil income for a few months. Today there is no major oil producer that can afford a lengthy interruption in cash flow from exports.
That means the U.S. has no need either to kowtow to the oil countries or to control them militarily. It can buy all the oil it wants if it's willing to pay the going price, and all of its oil-related military adventures have never resulted in a lowering of that price. (Why would American oil companies want a lower price?)
Energy independence, properly understood, is about ending dependence on imported fossil fuels because they involve shipping huge amounts of money abroad, not because the supplies are liable to be cut off. To the extent that the goal of energy independence encourages alternative sources, it is useful in reducing emissions - but not if it is used to replace imported oil from allegedly unreliable sources with dirtier oil from a friendlier source.
Harper is appealing to the stupid version of the energy independence policy. It will be instructive to see if Obama falls for it.
Gwynne Dyer's new book, Climate Wars, has just been published in Canada by Random House.