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Canada Withdraws from Kyoto: Are Tar Sands to Blame?

J. Mijin Cha

As the Durban climate talks come to an end, Canada announced on Monday that it would be withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol. Wait, what? Canada? This type of move is somewhat expected from the U.S., assuming we had ratified Kyoto, but not from our progressive neighbor to the North.

What happened?

Part of the reversal is due to a change in majority leadership in government from the Liberal party to the Conservative party, which has never embraced Kyoto. But, the bigger story is that the environment minister, Peter Kent, indicated that the possibility of huge fines for failing to meet emissions targets had played a role in deciding to withdraw from the treaty. While Kent claimed that the targets were never realistic, in fact, Canada had failed to meet previous targets and has continually met only 25 percent of its target emissions reduction.  Moreover, the country's embrace of tar sand mining contributes to the increase in their carbon emissions and the makes the possibility that emissions targets would not be met far more likely.

Earlier this year, Canada admitted that it failed to report a 20 percent rise in emissions from the Alberta tar sands when it submitted its annual inventory to the United Nations. Even though the overall emissions reported was correct, it was impossible to determine what sector was responsible for the increase in emissions. In fact, emissions from tar sands accounted for 6.5 percent of Canada’s overall emissions, a significant percentage that will continue to rise because tar sands are becoming more carbon intensive, with emissions per barrel of oil rising 14.5 percent in 2009. Tar sand mining is more carbon intensive than traditional crude oil.

The tar sand influence is not just confined to Canada. The lobby is strong here, too, as demonstrated by the repeated attempts to force approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring tar sands from Alberta down to Texas Gulf Coast refineries.

House Republicans included approval of the pipeline in the bill to extend payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits extension. In other words, House Republicans are holding tax cuts and benefits that help working Americans hostage in order to approve an environmentally destructive project that will result in roughly 50 permanent jobs. This is on top of hearings earlier this month on ways to forcefully expedite the permit approvals for the project, effectively by-passing the President and State Department’s decision to require further environmental review and effectively delaying a decision on the project until 2013. Fortunately, both Senate majority leader Harry Reid and the State Department have made it clear that attempts to force the Keystone project through will fail.

At risk of becoming a bit of a broken record, can you imagine what would happen to the renewable energy sector if it had this kind of till-death-do-us-part support? We could reach complete energy independence while creating significant numbers of permanent green jobs, that’s what could happen.