Tar sands were the Elephant in the Oval Office

by Guest Blogger

September 17, 2009

Greenpeace activists have already made the point by occupying a Shell tar sands mine in Alberta that "climate leaders don’t buy tar sands."

Because Canada is America’s largest supplier of oil, the elephant in the Oval Office, when Harper and Obama met at the White House in Washington on September 16th, was Alberta’s tar sands.

tar sands

The tar sands are the reason that Canada has become the largest single national supplier of oil to the United States – exceeding Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Nigeria.  The tar sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions… production of synthetic crude oil from tar sands results in three to five times more greenhouse gas than conventional crude.

In parliament on September 15th, Stephen Harper said that he is committed to "clean development" of the tar sands, but the reality is that there is no such thing – the tar sands produce the world’s dirtiest oil.

The official statement from Harper/Obama meeting contained no mention of tar sands; no mention of caps on greenhouse gas emission reductions for the medium-term (2020); and no indication of any progress on national or international emissions trading programs. Yet they had the temerity to say “they reiterated the urgency of taking aggressive action to combat climate change”.

The only justification for any mention of climate and energy was the release of a document entitled: “US-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue Action Plan” [PDF].

This document claims that "The United States and Canada have announced ambitious emissions reduction goals for 2050…" That’s simply not true. The Canadian target for 2050 is only 50 to 60 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Scientists have called for a minimum reduction 80 per cent by industrial countries, and as close to zero as possible.

The Harper government’s target for 2020 is only 3 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. The KYOTOplus Campaign, supported by Greenpeace and more than 80 other Canadian organizations, calls for a minimum reduction of 25 per cent.

The main thrust of the so-called “Action Plan” is the promotion of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The oil and gas industry touts CCS as the silver bullet solution to the massive greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands and from coal-fired electricity. There are only four test sites in the entire world that are actually sequestering carbon dioxide underground. Aside from numerous technical and environmental problems, we can be sure of only one thing — CCS is prohibitively expensive and can only be realized with massive government subsidies… therefore the Clean Energy Dialog!

By pushing Carbon Capture and Storage, the Clean Energy Dialogue is only putting a fig leaf over the huge environmental impacts of the tar sands. It will ultimately be too expensive and come too late to make a serious impact on the climate crisis. Worse, the huge expenditures on the CCS will prevent investment in the truly effective solutions for global warming – renewable energy and energy efficiency. The Alberta government has already committed about $2 billion in provincial taxpayer subsidies to CCS, and the Harper government has committed about $1 billion… of OUR money.

The bottom line is that the Harper government has refused to take the climate crisis seriously. The fate of the earth is going to be decided at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. It’s time to get serious.

Dave Martin is the Climate and Energy Coordinator for Greenpeace Canada


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