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Published on Thursday, February 19, 2009 by The Guardian/UK

I Hope Obama Jumps the Right Way on Canada's Tar Sands

by George Monbiot

One story, two contradictory reports.

The first, on Bloomberg news, suggests that ahead of a meeting with Canada's prime minister, Barack Obama believes the US's northern neighbour can green its tar sands, becoming compatible with his clean energy revolution.

The second, in Nature, suggests that his environmental measures will destroy tar sands production - which mostly supplies the US - by making it prohibitively expensive to sell south of the border.

I think you can probably guess which outcome I'm hoping for. For the sake of argument, let's accept the following improbable propositions:

1 That the Albertan tar sands operation can adopt universal carbon capture and storage, cutting the emissions from processing the fuel by 80-90%.

2 That this can be done so cheaply that tar production remains economically viable.

3 That it can happen quickly enough to help prevent global climate breakdown.

This still leaves us with two intractable problems. The first is that even if the extraction and processing of tar sands produces scarcely more carbon than the production of ordinary petroleum, the stuff will still be burnt in cars, and there's no foreseeable carbon capture and storage technology which can deal with that. We will have a chance of preventing full-scale climate breakdown only if we reduce the amount of fossil fuel we take out of the ground.

The second is that carbon pollution is just one of the impacts of tar sands production. The strip-mining destroys vast tracts of forest and wetland. The processing poisons great volumes of water, which sit in ever-growing toxic lagoons, or are flushed down the rivers, at potential hazard to both wildlife and human health. You have only to see some pictures of these operations to recognise that there can be no such thing as clean tar sands, just as - when all the impacts are taken into account - there is no such thing as clean coal.

Alberta's oil production ensures that Canada is trashing its own environment, and is further from meeting its Kyoto commitments than any other country that has ratified the treaty. Its government has no intention of closing the Alberta tar patch. Let's hope Obama jumps the right way when he meets Canadian PM Stephen Harper today, and ensures that this industry becomes impossible to sustain.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Visit his website at

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