Last week the US state department approved an oil pipeline which will carry tar sands oil from Alberta across Canada down to Wisconsin. The move follows long term plans between the US and Canada over energy deals, with tar sands already a key part of the US’s current oil provider. For environmentalists the move is a major setback, with tar sands, considered the dirtiest of all oils permanently and visibility crossing the boundary of the two countries.

Environmentalists both sides of the border and around the world can only greet this with disappointment. It had been thought during the Obama campaign that his rhetoric of “dirty oil” would restrict the development of tar sands to its most likely consumer, the US. However, what now appears likely is that the US has given tacit International approval to the oil sands by creating a permanent pipeline.

Earlier this year on his first state visit to Canada, President Obama described the two problems of the nations:

Here in Canada, you have the issue of the oil sands … In the United States, we have issues around coal

Environmentalists had hoped such comments were indicative of a new direction that would see serious measures to reduce the environmental impact of both fuels. Although this isn’t off the table, the US approval of this pipeline indicates that any environmental measures will take a back seat, to economic and energy security concerns. Most worrying was the timing, the US appears to have accepted the pipeline prior to negotiating on the related environmental issues, had they negotiated first, Alberta’s eagerness to find a consumer may have created greater leverage for significant concessions to environmental issues. Given the Harper Government’s reluctance to demand any serious clean up of Canada’s tar sands, many were looking to Obama to impose the pressure from the outside, making this cross-border pipeline a striking blow.

President Obama may see the tar sands as an unfortunate compromise. A major part of his push towards making green energy a necessity for America has been packaging the debate in terms of energy security, something the US military has been keenly pursuing, recent polls indeed indicate that President Obama enjoys approval on his green energy plans and as well as the military has received reports from veteran groups for green energy. All of this support comes at a price, it makes it harder for President Obama to then ignore a stable oil supply from Canada, without looking like he’s passed up an energy security issue.

It’s not all bad news for environmentalists, while this move favours the tar sands industries, it’s difficult to see how the tar sands will avoid environmental legislation in the long term. While the Oil sand industries have been successful in Alberta at avoiding serious legislation, with the target of 14% reduction on 2005 levels by 2050. As Climatico reported, will likely be able to negotiate generous provision in Canada’s proposed Cap and Trade, pressure most likely south of the border such as we’ve already seen from California and the like could turn pressure on them to do far more to clean up the industry. Critical, will be the upcoming talks between President Obama and Prime Minister Harper, both as an opportunity for environmental groups to bring oil sands development to light and to gauge the strength of President Obama’s commitment to creating responsible standards for American energy supplies.

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