Muckraker: Grist on Politics

President Obama ventured north to Canada on Thursday to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but environmentalists looking for any indication that the two leaders would issue unequivocal calls for action on global warming or a curtailing of America’s dependence on Canada’s vast oil deposits were left disappointed.

The two leaders, instead, promised a “clean energy dialog” that commits senior officials from both countries to collaborate on technologies that will reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change, said Harper.

That will include a monetary partnership on the development of carbon capture and storage technologies — the holy grail for many oil and coal boosters who insist that renewable energies can’t replace fossil fuels. The United States already committed to using the $3.4 billion in the newly enacted economic stimulus package for carbon capture and storage demonstrations, while Canada has committed $1 billion to a Clean Energy Fund in the government’s Economic Action Plan. The two leaders also agreed to partner on the development of smart grid technologies.

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“How we produce and use energy is fundamental to our economic recovery, but also our security and our planet, and we know we can’t afford to tackle these issues in isolation,” said Obama during a joint news conference.

Beyond dialog and promised investments in technology, there weren’t a whole lot of answers from either leader on how their governments will deal with energy and climate in the short term. A major issue between the two nations has been oil from Canada’s tar sands. The United States imports a lot of Canadian oil – 1.9 million barrels a day in 2008, to be exact. That’s more than the U.S. imported from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and all those other nations that are so often targeted in complaints about U.S. energy “dependence.”

Harper’s government wants any climate pact to exempt the vast tar sands of Alberta from regulation. The tar sands contain up to 173 billion barrels of oil, but their extraction is an environmental nightmare (not to mention the problem of burning it). Thousands of acres of forests have to be destroyed to get to the oil. Separating the oil from the sand and clay is extremely energy intensive, and the waste material drenches waterways in toxic sludge.

Asked about the issue today, Obama compared the tar sands problem with the coal problem in the United States (a comparison many Canadians have also made). While he was clear that carbon capture technologies are not cost effective at this point, he implicitly endorsed efforts to spend billions more on researching them.

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“In the United States, we have issues around coal, for example, which is extraordinarily plentiful and runs a lot of our power plants and if we can figure out how to capture the carbon, that would make an enormous difference in how we operate,” said Obama. “Right now, the technologies are at least not cost effective. So my expectation is is that this clean energy dialog will move us in the right direction.”

In an interview with the CBC on Tuesday, Obama acknowledged that tar-sands oil “creates a big carbon footprint,” but was optimistic that the both the tar sands and coal problems “can be solved by technology.”

Enviros aren’t particularly happy about the Obama-Harper focus on making dirty energy sources cleaner.

“Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on earth. It is the fastest growing source of global warming emissions in Canada. It has no place in a clean energy economy,” said Sierra Club Dirty Fuels Campaign Coordinator Pat Gallagher in a statement on today’s meeting. “Unfortunately, carbon capture and storage is an unproven technology that isn’t in use yet. As President Obama noted today, the technology is not yet cost-effective. We should be focusing on the clean energy and efficiency solutions that already exist, the solutions President Obama has laid out that will create green jobs and stimulate our economy.”

Canadian clean-energy campaigners reserved most of their criticism for Harper. “Given the level of ambition President Obama has already shown in tackling global warming, it’s disappointing that the only thing Stephen Harper committed to today is holding talks on technology research and pilot projects,” said Matthew Bramley, director of the climate change program at Canada’s Pembina Institute. “Talking is worthwhile, but it won’t reduce Canada’s emissions anytime soon.”

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