Obama triggers first environmental dividend

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Canada moves to protect U.S. market for dirty oil

The world enjoyed the first environmental dividend of an Obama presidency yesterday when a worried Canadian government proposed a joint North American action plan to address climate change.

Although it appeared that Canada’s real goal was to ensure a continued U.S. market for its huge dirty-fuel tar sands project, this could still be a solid step toward a continental cap-and-trade program – which would be the first significant gesture from the world region that, so far, has been the least responsible in its approach to global warming.

Since its first election two years ago, the Conservative government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has worked in lock step with the Bush administration in an effort to forestall significant international action on climate change.

For example, Canada was an early joiner in the U.S.-led Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate – a sort of anti-Kyoto organization comprising the biggest polluters and policy backsliders in the world. Canada also acted as a stalking horse for the U.S. administration during Kyoto negotiations in Bali last year. Because the U.S. is not a signatory to the Kyoto accord, it is not permitted to participate in the main negotiations, but Canada – a signatory that is on record saying that it has no intention of meeting its Kyoto commitments – is still allowed in the room, and dutifully delivered the Bush administration’s message of inaction.

The U.S. wind has obviously shifted and leading Democrats have been increasingly critical of higher-carbon sources of crude oil – the worst of which comes from the ultra-dirty Alberta tar sands project. As the second-biggest known source of crude oil in the world (after Saudi Arabia), the tar sands is a geographically and geo-politically attractive option – a potential source to help the U.S. wean off its dependence on Middle Eastern oil. But, again, many Democrats – and the progressive jurisdiction of California – are arguing that the environmental cost will be too high.

Now we have the Canadian Environment Minister saying “The election of President Obama, when one looks at the speeches and the commitments he’s talked about in terms of the environment, presents really exciting opportunities for us, as Canadians.”

This would be more credible if Mr. Prentice was not elected from Calgary – the “Dallas North” capital of the Alberta-based energy industry and the home of Canada’s most committed anti-climate change activists.

Still, as noted yesterday on the DeSmogBlog, now that Australian and American voters have both cast out their reactionary leaders, Canada’s Conservatives are the only leaders of a developed nation who have resisted sincere international action to address global warming. The election of Barack Obama removes Canada’s last ally in that shameful effort.

This early overture – even if the main intent is to undermine potential U.S. regulations against the purchase of tar sands oil – may still prove to be an important turning point for climate action worldwide.  

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