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Rhetoric and Reality Clash

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Issue: 59 Section: Canadian News Geography: Canada, USA ottawa Topics: american politics, federal politics

March 18, 2009

Rhetoric and Reality Clash

Obama's first foreign visit

by Chris Arsenault

Canada, the largest foreign supplier of oil to the US, sends 1.2 million barrels south each day. Crude from Canada's tar sands, "the world's dirtiest oil," accounts for half that supply. During his first foreign visit to Canada, US President Barack Obama called climate change and the need to develop clean energy resources "the most pressing challenge of our time." He did not mention the tar sands. Photo: Chris Arsenault

VANCOUVER–On his first foreign visit as US President, Barack Obama's rhetoric of "hope" and "change" came face-to-face with the hard, divisive policy realities of climate change from Canada's tar sands, a growing insurgency in Afghanistan and the sputtering world economy.

Some 2,500 spectators lined the streets of Ottawa to watch the President's motorcade make its way to Parliament Hill, a marked contrast to the thousands of protesters who greeted former-President George W. Bush during his last Canadian visit. While the Canadian public catches Obama fever, environmentalists and some aboriginal groups say they've been left in the cold by his energy policies.

"Obama must ask Canada to clean up its tar sands and to respect the rights of our aboriginal First Nations," said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a community near the Alberta tar sands, the world's largest energy project.

While promising to press ahead with "carbon reduction technologies," Obama did not mention the tar sands directly during his visit. Extracting oil from the tar sands creates three times more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of conventional crude.

At the press conference following closed-door meetings between President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the two leaders promised a "Clean Energy dialogue," focusing on plans to trap carbon dioxide underground, as well as improvements to North America's electricity grid.

Standing in front of Canadian and US flags, as the pomp and circumstance of international diplomacy dictates, Obama called climate change and the need to develop clean energy sources "the most pressing challenges of our time."

The Natural Resources Defense Council dubs tar sands crude "the world's dirtiest oil." Canada is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the US, sending more than 1.2 million barrels per day to its southern neighbour.

Trade between the two countries is worth more than 1.6 billion dollars per day, making it the world's largest trading relationship. In addition to energy and the environment, the two leaders discussed bailouts for North America's auto industry and the general economic downturn.

"How we produce and use energy is fundamental for our economic recovery and also for our security and our planet," said Obama at the press conference.

Prior to Obama's Canadian visit, aboriginal and environmental groups placed a full-page ad in the newspaper USA Today, stating that the tar sands "stands in the way of a new energy economy." The day before the presidential visit, activists from Greenpeace scaled a bridge in Ottawa to hang a banner that read "Climate Leaders Don't Buy Tar Sands."

During his election campaign, Obama vowed to end the US's addiction to "dirty, dwindling and dangerously expensive" oil. His campaign's energy guru, Jason Grumet, said greenhouse gas emissions from Canada's tar sands were "unacceptably high."

In an apparent about-face from his campaign promises, Obama refused to characterize tar sands crude as "dirty oil" in a pre-summit interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. While acknowledging that the sands create "a big carbon footprint," Obama argued that technologies, including a plan from Alberta's provincial government to store carbon dioxide underground, could solve the problem.

The idea of sequestering and storing greenhouse gases underground, known as carbon capture, has yet to be implemented at any tar sands operations and critics are skeptical that it can work. The tar sands are Canada's fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, tar sands oil extraction pumps 29.5 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, equivalent to the exhaust output from more than 5 million cars.

Even if carbon capture technology does prove to be effective, the sands create a host of other environmental challenges, water depletion being the most significant. Producing one barrel of tar sands oil requires at least three barrels of water; there is enough toxic water in tar sands tailings ponds to fill 2.2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

"The devastation of our homelands in this short period of time is perplexing to my people," said George Poitras, former Chief of the Mikisew Cree, another aboriginal community close to the tar sands. He explained that the impacts of tar sands development have occurred in "a fraction of the time...compared to the thousands of years we have inhabited these lands."

An artist's rendering of Obama in front of the White House. Photo: badpaintingsofbarackobama.com

In addition to energy and the economy, Obama and Harper discussed the increasing violence in Afghanistan, where Obama has pledged to send 17,000 more US troops as part of a "surge." Canada currently has 2,500 combat troops stationed around Kandahar, set to leave in 2011.

Obama stated explicitly that he was not requesting more troops or money from Canada for the Afghan occupation.

Prime Minister Harper recently stated in an interview with CNN that foreign troops would not be able to defeat an insurgency in Afghanistan.

The original version of this article was published by Inter Press Service.

Chris Arsenault holds the Phil Lind Fellowship at the University of British Columbia's Department of History. He is currently writing a history of sabotage and the Alberta oil patch. Anyone (anonymous or not) who can provide information about this should contact him at arsenault_chris[at]hotmail.com. His first book, Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange and the War at Home, will be released in March.

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