Will prez sink tar sands?

Stephen Harper and his Big Oil buddies.


Stephen Harper and his Big Oil buddies are getting nervous about U.S. President Barack Obama’s talk of an emissions standard for U.S. oil imports that may seriously slow the flow of crude from Alberta. Can Obama save us from the single largest source of greenhouse gases on the planet? We parse the possibilities.

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What Obama said during the campaign

He supports a new energy policy based on clean renewables.

He’s committed to breaking the U.S.’s addiction to “dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive” oil.

The U.S. can’t return to the economic strategies of the past “for we are living through an age of fundamental economic transformation.”

What he’s promised

To eliminate the need for oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela within 10 years.

To double fuel economy standards within 18 years.

What ecologists say

It would be a catastrophic mistake for Obama to usher in his new era of environmentalism by embracing the tar sands.

The process of extracting bitumen, the dirtiest form of petroleum, from the tar sands releases three times the greenhouse gases of conventional oil and requires huge amounts of fresh water – three barrels for every barrel of oil produced.

The fresh water used is lost forever, dumped as waste into toxic lakes so large now that they can be seen from outer space.

Is the writing on the wall?

The U.S.’s big-city mayors have already singled out the tar sands, calling for national guidelines for fossil fuels at a convention last June. The keynote speaker at that event? Barack Obama.

Jason Grumet, a senior energy adviser to Obama, was quoted at the time as saying an Obama administration would only support energy solutions “that meet our long-term obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

A law banning U.S. government departments from purchasing oil from the tar sands has been on the books since 2007 but has been largely ignored under President Bush. Henry Waxman, the California congressman who championed the law, is now chair of the House energy committee.

Surefire signs the feds are worried

The bailout Big Oil has begun, with huge subsidies – $2 billion to Imperial this week for the MacKenzie Gas Project – to keep the crude flowing.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice is running around the country telling anybody who’ll listen that the feds are committed to developing technologies – like carbon capture – that’ll mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands, even though the tech is at least two decades away.

The budget will reportedly include financial incentives to help develop that tech.

Kyoto-killer Stephen Harper is all of a sudden talking about a continental climate change pact with the U.S.

Why it may not be so easy for Obama

His national security adviser, former NATO commander James Jones, is past president and CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, a big-biz think tank rife with Big Oil interests, including several Canadian companies.

The secretive and all-powerful Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America favours greater economic integration between Canada and the U.S.

Obama’s green policy positions are not without their contradictions. He supports fast-tracking the Alaska natural gas pipeline, the expansion of nuclear power and the mother of all paradoxes, clean coal (hint: it’s not so clean) to meet the U.S.’s energy needs.

He’s also left the door open to shale oil development, a tech not dissimilar to tar sands extraction.

Will taking on Big Oil prove too costly?

Canada is already the U.S.’s largest supplier of oil and gas, and some 20 per cent of exports to the U.S. already come from the tar sands.

U.S. pipeline companies and refiners plan to spend an estimated $31.7 billion on some 36 pipeline projects and expansions from the tar sands and stretching as far south as Oklahoma. The plans include 17 major refinery projects around the Great Lakes.

What the experts say

“I don’t think we’re going to get a decision from the U.S. not to buy tar sands oil. There’s too much pressure in the U.S. and support for a North American source for oil.”

Mark Lutes, policy analyst, climate change and energy, Suzuki Foundation

“Barack Obama is strongly committed to action to protect the environment. He underscored this in his inaugural speech, saying he wants ‘to roll back the spectre of a warming planet.’ You don’t say things like that in your first five minutes of power unless you mean it. We’re at the beginning of a long discussion, and the economy is a huge factor.”

David Israelson, vice-president, Media Profile, author of How The Oil Sands Got To The Great Lakes Basin

enzom@nowtoronto.com

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