There’s a major conflict brewing between two policy objectives in Washington; energy security (relying on Venezuela and the Middle East for oil) and the Obama administrations commitment to stop global warming. These two stated objectives of the current administration were put to the test on Obama’s first trip abroad as President of the United States.
Energy and global warming were at the top of the agenda when President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper met in Ottawa on Thursday. The two leaders emerged from their meeting saying they agreed to establish a “clean-energy dialogue” to cut greenhouses gas emissions and fight climate change. The use of such ambiguous language allows both Barack Obama and Stephen Harper to side step any concrete obligations to deal with the issue of tar sands and global warming. However, whatever ‘clean-energy dialogue’ the leaders do have, will continually be tested by internal U.S. politics concerning climate change and new environmental regulations. Developments surrounding tar sands and climate change in the United States including; low carbon fuel standards, a cap and trade system (climate change legislation), and targets for greenhouse gas reductions all pose serious threats to the importation of dirty tar sands oil from Canada, and the ‘clean energy dialogue’ that both leaders promised to on Thursday.
As Greenpeace Canada pointed out,
In January 2007 California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger established a Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) by Executive Order. This unprecedented greenhouse gas (GHG) standard for transportation fuels requires fuel providers to ensure that fuel sold in California reduces GHG emissions measured on a “full fuel cycle” basis (i.e. upstream feedstock extraction, fuel refining, and transport to market). This will clearly discourage the use of tar sands oil. Schwarzenegger has also called for the U.S. to implement a national Low Carbon Fuel Standard. (http://www.energy.ca.gov) [In addition,] in June 2008, 1,000 mayors at the U.S. Conference of Mayors supported a “High Carbon Fuels” resolution which called on mayors across the U.S. “to track and reduce the lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions from their municipal vehicles by preventing or discontinuing the purchase of higher-carbon unconventional or synthetic fuels. (http://www.mass.gov)
These strong environmental regulations continue to move from the state level to the federal level, and will face fierce domestic and foreign opposition from an array of special interest groups ranging from the Canadian government, to global warming deniers, to major oil companies that have huge investments in the tar sands. The tar sands remains the most capital intensive project on the planet, and continues to expand production even in the midst of a global recession and falling oil prices — thanks to the United States unrelenting demand for oil.
Since 1999, Canada has been the largest supplier of oil to the United States, providing 2.4 million barrels per day, with approximately 75% coming from the tar sands (1.8 million barrels per day). The tar sands hold an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of oil (bitumen), the second largest deposit of oil reserves in the world (the size of Florida), trailing only Saudi Arabia. The problem embroiling the tar sands, President Obama, and the Canadian government lies within the production of tar sands oil and its effects on global warming.
The extraction and production of oil from the tar sands is incredibly energy intensive; generating three to five times as much greenhouse gas pollution as conventional oil production, and it has single handedly made Canada’s Kyoto protocol targets for greenhouse gas emissions impossible to attain. Whole ecosystems, including the Boreal Forest and the Athabasca River Delta are threatened by tar sands oil production through practices such as clear cutting and water depletion. For instance, it takes 3-5 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. In addition, the extraction and upgrading of this synthetic crude oil also releases dangerous toxins into the air and water, greatly affecting air quality, and jeopardizing the health of indigenous communities downstream and downwind from tar sands operations.
The major effects of oil imported into the U.S. from the tar sands, on the climate and environment in general, continues to create a major fault line between what the Obama administration says it wants to achieve in regards to stopping global warming, and what is actually possible. Mitigating climate change in both Canada and the United States will be impossible unless U.S. fossil fuel consumption levels fall.
Moreover, the argument that an increased reliance on oil derived from the tar sands is self-evident under the guise of national security, is a shallow argument at best. Considering that the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a Pentagon-funded think tank, issued a report last year calling climate change a “serious national security threat,” and that Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Lawrence Farrel recently stated in the Washington Times that climate change “is not just a foreign policy issue …it is a national security issue” should raise eyebrows among those who advocate continued development and importation of oil from the tar sands.
If the Obama administration decides to increasingly rely on oil from the tar sands to fulfill our energy needs; they’ll be sidestepping his commitment to wean America off its addition to oil, to address global warming, and to work towards achieving world stability while protecting America’s national security. The road we must take in order to achieve all three of those goals will take courage, dedication, and sacrifice from all Americans combined with unprecedented leadership from Washington.