Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is getting a chilly reception from environmental groups as he heads to the White House today to talk energy with President Obama.
An online ad campaign showing Harper in a cowboy hat suggests the prime minister is trying to undermine U.S. climate change legislation to protect the tar sands.
"As elected leader, he helped keep America addicted to oil," the environmental groups' ad reads. "Now he's pushing big oil's latest trick."
Activists have been putting that message into 3D this week, starting on a bridge at Niagara Falls, where six Rainforest Action Network climbers hung a giant banner with arrows pointing to a "Clean Energy Future" south of the border and "Tar Sands Oil" pointing the way back to Canada.
Greenpeace went after the oil operations themselves. Two dozen activists snuck in amid the bitumen and giant machinery of a Shell tar sands operation in Alberta and chained themselves to a three-story dump truck and a hydraulic shovel.
Their message: Ripping up the boreal forest to extract some of the most carbon intensive oil on the planet is a climate crime.
"Greenpeace has come here today, to the frontiers of climate destruction, to block this giant mining operation and tell Harper and Obama meeting tomorrow that climate leaders don't buy tar sands," said Mike Hudema, Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner.
"The tar sands are a devastating example of how our future will look unless urgent action is taken to protect the climate."
Canada is the United States' largest oil supplier, with much of that oil coming from the tar sands, and its use is likely to increase. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved a new pipeline to carry oil from Alberta into the northern U.S. Unless environmental groups and Native Americans succeed in their lawsuit, the pipeline will run though northern Minnesota to a shipping and pipeline hub on Lake Superior.
The world's oil addiction is going to expand those energy-intensive tar sands operations three to five times by 2020, says a new Greenpeace report by Canadian author Andrew Nikiforuk.
That's bad news for the climate. The tar sands operations are already the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions growth in Canada, and their annual emissions totals are likely to more than quadruple by 2020, according to the Pembina Institute.
Tar sands' reserves are nothing like the oil pumped from wells. Their oil is locked in a sticky, tar-like substance called bitumen. Extracting and the processing that substance is highly energy intensive, releasing three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional crude oil.
The process contaminates about three barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced, leaving sprawling, toxic tailings ponds that can endanger wildlife, and the bitumen contains 11 times more sulfur and nickel, six times more nitrogen and five times more lead than conventional oil, toxins that are released into the water and air when the oil is refined.
Of course, Canada also holds more than 170 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, second only to Saudi Arabia.
That position as an oil producer, the revenue and oil industry lobbying have made Canada "a global carbon bully," writes Nikiforuk.
"Perhaps the most destructive legacy of rapid tar sands development has been the paralysis of Canadian public policy on climate change at home, and the nation's persistent obstruction of global action abroad," he writes.
"On the global stage, climate change negotiators now recognize Canada as a stalwart defender of high-carbon fuels."
Canada has actively fought standards that would lower the carbon content of fuels, including sending diplomats to strenuously object during a California's Air Resources Board meeting on the state's new low-carbon fuel standard and accuse the state of potential trade violations.
Former UK scientific adviser David King singled out Canada and Japan's former government earlier this year as obstructionists to a new international climate deal. Briefing notes prepared by Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs also suggested Canadian officials wanted to try to split members of the EU when it came to greenhouse gas commitments.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, Canada promised to keep its emissions to an average of 6 percent below 1990
levels. Instead, Canada will exceed that target by more than 30 percent by 2012, Nikiforuk writes. The nation's 2020 reduction goal is lower is a weak 20 percent below 2006 levels, roughly 2 percent below 1990 levels.
In their first official meeting earlier this year in Canada, Harper and Obama agreed to a clean energy dialogue, including cooperating on developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, but the tar sands weren't discussed.
When Harper arrives at the White House today, he plans to use the meeting "to continue to promote Canada as a secure and stable supply of energy," Harper spokesman Dimitri Soudas said.
"Just because Canada wants to export dirty fuels doesn't mean America has to use them," said NRDC President Frances Beinecke. "Instead of devouring the boreal forest and spewing greenhouse gas emissions into the air, we can improve the fuel efficiency of our cars and shift to plug-in hybrids."
(Photos: Dirty Oil Sands Network; Greenpeace; Rainforest Action Network)