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Tar Sands – The Fight Continues

Tar Sands - The Fight Continues

I have written on a number of occasions here about the Alberta tar sands.  Like many environmentalists, I find the idea of ripping tar out of the ground with excavators the size of aircraft carriers – or sucking it up after spending months softening it with injected steam – repellent.  The greenhouse gas implications are horrific, the threat to public health and to wildlife dire, and the costs in money, energy and water for the extraction and processing are enormous.  All of this is very well documented.  See, for instance, NRDC’s “Stop Dirty Fuels” campaign.

Given the fact that the tar sands industry has long since descended on Alberta and taken it over, for all intents and purposes, and has had a pernicious influence on the federal government as well, there has been a growing fear that its tentacles are creeping into the Obama Administration.  The State Department is in a position to radically alter the course of modern history by just saying no to a permit that would allow the rapid expansion of the tar sands by providing an outlet for their export beyond North America.

The Keystone XL pipeline, which requires permission from State because it crosses international borders into the US, would allow the industry to triple its production and increase its already nasty footprint.  State offered a peculiarly limp environmental impact review which signaled its willingness to rubber stamp the pipeline project.  EPA and the Department of Energy, among many others, critiqued the review and found it wanting in the extreme.  Hillary Clinton even spoke out of school last year, saying she was “inclined” to allow the permit.  Secretary Clinton had her knuckles rapped by a contingent of US Senators and members of the House, and State has been forced into a much fuller and better-balanced environmental assessment.  (See Of Pipelines and Tar Sands.)

This seems all the stranger because President Obama has said he’d like to remove the subsidies that so enhance the oil industry’s mammoth profits and the administration has been making a concerted push to decarbonize our energy supply.  (See The Paradox of Canada’s Tar Sands and America’s Drive to Substantially Decarbonize Energy from me at DeSmogBlog.)  One of the leaked diplomatic cables that caused such a furor reveals the fact that Canadians and Americans alike recognize the disconnect.  Treehugger had the scoop here in December.  “…there is also keen sensitivity over the higher environmental footprint of oil from western Canada’s oil sands and concern about the implications for Canada of your energetic calls to develop renewable energies and reduce our reliance on imported oil.”  Fascinating.

So, the revised and, presumably, improved review of the Keystone XL project is due out from State imminently.  SolveClimate reports here that a coalition of groups, including some very big guns like NRDC, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and the League of Conservation Voters, have written to Sec. Clinton and asked for the full review period of 120 days to be implemented.  You can bet that the groups will subject this critical document to electron microscopy.

The NY Times, not incidentally, had a very strong editorial coming out foursquare against the project.  Bottom line?  “Moving ahead would be a huge error. From all of the evidence, Keystone XL is not only environmentally risky, it is unnecessary.”

Meanwhile, our brothers and sisters to the North are calling for significantly upgraded environmental review and oversight including “world-class scientific monitoring programs,” according to the Globe and Mail here.

More importantly, though, the European Union appears ready to put the boot to the tar sands.  (I’m an old rugby player.)  Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s Climate Change commissioner, has confirmed that the Fuel Quality Directive is heading toward the next stage:  a draft implementation program.  What this means is that the EU will grade transporation fuels based on their carbon footprint.  This, of course, means that tar sands oil will fall well to the back of pack.  The Canadian government is up in arms, warning, as reported here by Reuters, of WTO action.  “The Government of Canada believes this approach raises the prospect of unjustified discrimination and is not supported by the science.”  (They must be using the same scientists as the majority party in the US House of Representatives.)

I reported here awhile back that Norway might pull its state-owned oil company out of the tar sands.  That certainly would’ve had a big ripple effect.  If the EU, though, moves to ban or curtail tar sands oil from its 27-member bloc, that’ll be a kick in the head.  The EU doesn’t presently get but a trickle of oil from Canada, but it would be an important signal nevertheless.  If it were immaterial to the Canadians, they wouldn’t be putting up such a fuss.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change