Sheila McNulty The tar sands pipeline and Obama’s carbon commitments

The Obama Administration has made a big show about its desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But actions speak louder than words.

Environmentalists want to see the Administration underline its commitment to reduce carbon by rejecting a permit for a pipeline carrying fuel for Canada’s carbon-intensive oil sands into the US.

Amy Myers Jaffe, energy expert at Rice University, cautions that such a message would be better delivered in  bilateral talks. Certainly that would be the more diplomatic course, and most likely the way the Obama Administration will go.

But rejecting the permit request by Enbridge Energy would no doubt underline the administration’s committment to moving toward a green economy. Indeed, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group, says this is a test of whether the Obama Administration is going to have a consistent message.

That is certainly true. But Canada counters that it is working to reduce the greenhouse gas content of oil sands production.

Jonathan Sauve, the Canadian Embassy’s acting spokesman, said:

Canada is committed to developing the oil sands in a responsible manner and working with the Province of Alberta and the industry to ensure that the environmental impacts are minimized. Canada is the single largest supplier of crude oil to the US, and the oil sands is a growing part of this supply as it contains 97% of Canada’s 176bn barrels of reserves, which are second only to those of Saudi Arabia.

Hmm, Canada does have a point. The US needs fuel, and Canada is willing to provide it, when so many other oil-rich countries are becoming increasingly nationalistic.

Michael Griffin, Carnegie Mellon’s assistant research professor for Engineering and Public Policy, says the permit is of minor significance when judging the intentions of the Obama Administration.

But he weighs the options. He says the decision to grant the permit comes down to a tradeoff between energy security and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The permit would not have much impact on energy security, he said, because oil sands’ derived oil would not reduce Middle East imports and instead would meet the rising future demand of the US. The permit would, however, have an impact on carbon dioxide emissions, noting, there is no question it takes much more energy to produce a barrel of synthetic crude oil from the oil sands than conventional crude.

It will be interesting to see how the Obama Administration justifies its final decision. Either way, it is going to disappoint someone.

Related links:

Oil sands test of Obama’s green credentials (FT, 11/08/09)