Canada has had a rough time of it in recent weeks, the visit of President Obama, on his first official state visit was marred by domestic protests. The issue, a divisive one for Canadians, was made explicit when the National Geographic ran a on the tar-sands, using double spreads to highlights the destructive cost of tar sand development with some lurid before and after photos.

As if the National Geographic article was not enough, another journal of note, The Economist, wrote this article, providing some substantive criticism of Prime Minister Harper’s green efforts to date and prompting some passionate discussion in the subsequent comments.

Canada’s Embarrassment of Riches

But as the comments below made clear, many Canadians feel their label as among the most intensive energy users on the planet is not necessarily a fair appraisal. As one reader pointed out, Canada processes much of the world’s key resources, not just oil and tar sands but primary commodities such as metals that are vital to other countries manufacturing economies but which would only show up on Canada’s carbon footprint. Canada is taking perhaps a larger portion of the strain that other countries take advantage of.

If this is at the heart of Prime Minister Harper’s reluctance to engage in more aggressive climate measures, then he has a point. Canada is to some extent shouldering some of the carbon footprint of countries it exports to, yet critics would not be wrong to call out the Canadian industries, who have enjoyed large profits prior to the recession and yet have been unwilling to take measures to seriously reduce their environmental impact, such as Alberta’s detail free 20 year plan.

The economic rationale, which justifies tar sand development with minimal “greening” also justifies Canada’s recent announcement of a Nuclear power expansion. As this article highlights, the last few weeks have seen strong move towards nuclear power, with both Ontario and Sasketchewan announcing moves to increase nuclear power. With Ontario claiming it as a “green” form of energy, the argument is that Nuclear power is emission free and Canada is not alone in touting Nuclear power as a solution to reducing fossil fuel emissions from power generation.

Several countries such as the UK and France, as well as US Energy Secretary Dr Stephen Chu have argued that Nuclear is an important part of matching future energy demand. The support underlines concern at the top echelons of government that renewable energy is not yet a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuel power, and in France and Canada’s case, Nuclear power represents an opportunity to capitalise on their already well developed nuclear industries.

Canada already gains 16% of its power from nuclear energy and provides a 1/3 of the world’s uranium its nuclear industry.

However, a number of environmental groups make a compelling case that Nuclear power is not the silver bullet governments claim it. As David Suzuki makes clear, besides the environmental damage in terms of water, the process of uranium extraction and processing involves green house gas emissions, as well as toxic gas emissions linked to acid rain. Furthermore they often overrun. The issue seems distinctly unjust to the environmental lobby, that the vast sum of investment could equally have been channelled into renewable energy.

Yet such an argument ignores the underlying economic realities of expanding a domestic nuclear industry. Sasketchewan’s economic future as the Premier makes clear could well be built around uranium and whether environmentalists like it or not, nuclear power’s future seems bright with the aforementioned countries such as the UK and Italy, among others as this table from the World Nuclear Association makes clear, Sasketchewan in particular has in the past few decades discovered further uranium samples and is planning to expand its mining capacity. Nuclear has the further advantage that it could sneak in under the environmentalists radar, with their efforts focused on Alberta’s tar sands developmens.

Are there any stumbling blocks?

Perhaps one of the potential stumbling blocks lies in the energy exports to the US. Canada currently supplies 17% US oil and 18% of its natural gas as well as increasingly integrated energy networks between US and Canadian states. But US efforts to increasingly green its energy supplies could provide roadblocks to certain types of energy; Claude Bechard Quebec’s National Resources minister is pushing for hydroelectricity to be recognised as green by US law makers, if hydroelectricity is having problems Nuclear would surely prove a harder sell. Similarly, if the US imposes more stringent green energy requirements then Canadian energy policy might consider alternatives.

On balance, the economic argument seems certain to triumph, yet Nuclear industry need not be as destructive as it currently is, the industry has moved on significantly since its hay day in the 1960s and by now Nuclear power plants are significantly more efficient with options to reprocess the spent fuel having great potential to extend the life of reactors without requiring further mining of nuclear resources. But as is so often the case, it is their neighbours to the South who once again could set the direction and pace of Canada’s efforts to green their energy policy.

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