Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

U.S. consul general watching tar sands closely

U.S. consul general watching oilsands closely
The Canadian Press
Date: Saturday Jan. 2, 2010

CALGARY — A career diplomat is keeping a close eye on the failures and successes within Alberta's oilsands and is reporting what she learns to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The giant projects in northern Alberta have taken global centre stage of late, thanks in large part to climate-change talks in Copenhagen. And Laura Lochman, the U.S. consul general responsible for Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, has essentially become the eyes and ears for the White House since her appointment in Calgary last June.

"Our job in the consulate is to communicate back to Washington, back to the policy-makers, what's really going on here. Because policy, at least theoretically, should be based on fact and reality," Lochman told The Canadian Press.

Alberta boasts the second largest oil reserves in the world --more than 174 billion barrels -- behind only Saudi Arabia. The resource has been under attack from environmentalists who call oilsands crude "dirty oil" because of the amount of greenhouse gases produced when it's refined.

The oilsands have become a growing political issue in the United States. California has passed new low-carbon fuel rules that are to go into effect in 2011 and are being eyed by other U.S. states. Last February, during his first visit to Canada, Obama spoke of the "big carbon footprint" left by the oilsands. Other lawmakers south of the border have also expressed concerns.

"This is why we're in contact with the (energy) companies so much, and we go up and see the oilsands and talk to environmental NGOs and we talk to First Nations leaders," said Lochman.

Lochman acknowledged that there are serious environmental impacts to address, but she said there has been progress. She pointed to the developing technology of carbon capture and storage and said it has shown real promise in dealing with emissions.

Canada is the single largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, accounting for 17 per cent of total U.S. oil imports. The oilsands produce about 1.3 million barrels of oil daily, and there are plans to double production in the near future.

The regular updates on Alberta's progress aren't a surprise to major Washington policy-makers, said Lochman.

"I think that greater education should and needs to take place beyond the key U.S. government agencies that handle some of these issues and it's going even to the state level," she added. "I don't think there's a general recognition in the United States of the role that Canada does play in the general population at large and potentially even among policy-makers at the state level or federal level in the Congress."

Lochman concedes that before accepting the posting in Calgary she was among those Americans who were unaware that Canada was the No. 1 supplier of oil to her country. That lack of awareness, she said, could be the result of how "seamlessly" the trade seems to be working between the two countries.

The CEO of natural gas shipper TransCanada Corp., Hal Kvisle, said the strong trade between the two countries underlines the need to work together to develop a new climate-change policy. He attended the talks in Copenhagen and said it's clear Canada and the United States have too much in common not to be on the same page.

"Our economies are so tightly integrated and we supply so much of the energy to the United States, that for Canada to go off in its own direction or to align with the Europeans would just, from a practical point of view, seem to be a huge mistake," Kvisle said.

"This isn't about letting the Americans tell us what we're going to do, it's just being practical and making sure that our policies align with American policies."

An Alberta-based environmental group said while the United States is interested in what the energy sector is doing, he's not sure how much of an impact it will have.

Marlo Raynolds, executive director at the Pembina Institute, sat down with the new U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, last fall to discuss the oilsands.

"To be frank, I don't think the U.S. is watching us all that closely. I think they will still put some additional pressure on Alberta to take some action. We know the president is juggling everything (including) health care, airport security and, on the broader level, climate change," Raynolds said.

"The U.S. is going to move as fast as it wants to, with or without Canada on energy issues."

When Obama visited Ottawa almost a year ago, he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to work together on a "clean energy dialogue" to develop science and technologies to stem the emission of greenhouse gases.

Raynold said there has been some long-delayed action in Canada, and especially in Alberta, because of the U.S. pressure and international condemnation over "dirty oil."

"I think the international black eye that Alberta has now witnessed ... I think it's an unfortunate and necessary reality to push our industry and push our government to actually really take some of the environmental issues more seriously."


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