Editorial: Obama offers Canada environmental wakeup

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Last month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, hoping to team up on an oil industry environmental strategy. Obama replied that he would only approve the Keystone XL pipeline project if Canada reduces its oilsands greenhouse gas emissions. Essentially, the U.S. told Canada it needs to clean up its environmental act.

Although Canada may seem environmentally friendly, with its vast and beautiful forests, our rate of greenhouse gas emissions have made the U.S. think twice about partnering with us for the Keystone Pipeline. This may seem counter-intuitive; between the two countries, Canada seems to be the one with a reputation for politesse, pristine wilderness, and health care. But in Alberta, our oilsands are putting out enough emissions to make the world think twice about how earth-friendly our country is. A 2011 Stanford University study estimated that Canada’s oilsands operations emit 22 per cent more carbon dioxide per output than other types of petroleum production.

According to Greenpeace, our oilsands are the largest contributor to growth of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, accounting for 40 million tons of CO2 emissions per year. Extracting the oil is an energy-intensive process, which makes it seem somewhat inefficient and not worth the emissions it produces. Yet oilsands investment climbed to $17.2 billion in 2010, a 63 per cent increase from $10.6 billion in 2009. In 2011, it was projected that oilsands investment would further increase to $21.6 billion. This is a large amount of money and time being invested in a project that creates such significant emissions. What does that say about the environmental responsibility of our country’s policies and practices, especially in relation to oil production?

It is not only the U.S. that should be critical of the Keystone XL. The benefit of the project to Canada is very questionable. The tax dollars being spent on oilsands will not go into social welfare. The pipeline and further oilsands development will make environmental accidents and contamination more likely. Now we learn that we will have to import dilatants to make the oil flow. In 2011, the Harper government decided to overhaul the Navigable Waters Protection Act, one of our oldest regulatory statutes. Canadian bodies of water will now be protected by the much weaker Navigation Protection Act, which—probably no coincidence—will also facilitate oil transportation routes through lakes and rivers.

Once upon a time Canada may have seemed environmentally friendly. Its forests and  waterways were protected by policy. A ban against uranium production to protect the wider world from the production of nuclear armaments was revered across the world. We had national conversations about how to protect against foreign ownership while striving for better job protection. That seems like a time far, far away. Harper’s offer for the U.S. to team up with Canada on a climate strategy isn’t going to win him any trust in the United States. Obama can’t be blamed for thinking twice.