Snake oil sales are down

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The tar and Canada's line in the sands have exploded this week in an uncanny combination of hugely high-profile political and economic events on both sides of the border.

So far on the energy scorecard, it looks like the U.S. is batting 1,000, Canada near zero. And sadly or happily, that's a very, very good thing.

With the new political reality south of the border rocking out so fast, it's hard to keep tabs. The latest and greatest is Obama's cap-and-trade budget, sent to Congress late last week.

Sure sounds exhilarating from up here, promising -- among equally brave actions on taxes, health care and education -- to raise $15 billion a year over 10 years from capping carbon emissions and auctioning credits. The money will be used to develop technologies such as wind and solar power, build energy-efficient cars and trucks and give individuals incentives to reduce carbon use.

But is there a catch? How does it look up close in Washington?

I reach Natural Resources Defense Council researcher Susan Casey-Lefkowitz just as she's immersing herself in the giant body of budget detail. She's been covering the tar sands beat for a long time, and like the others in Washington I've spoken with, she's excited and optimistic.

"I am struck by how unique it is compared to what has ever been done before," she says. "This is the first time a budget has shown income from a carbon cap."

She's not alone. The plan is getting rave reviews across the climate-aware community. I ask why there's so much trust in Obama's numbers.

She points to the whole gamut of actions that have earned that trust, from Obama's appointments, his stimulus package and his quick action on California's emission restrictions to Hillary Clinton's focus on climate change internationally. "The whole administration is moving together," she says.

Are you actually saying there's a real plan for a post-carbon future? I'm incredulous. "Yes. The administration seems to understand the importance of moving beyond oil," she says. That is one big mouthful.

Of course, for Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who set off for Washington on Monday, the budget, which has the Republicans screaming "carbon tax," is just the latest downer in a series of fossil-energy-dampening events.

Take the National Geographic issue that also hit the streets late last week, featuring 20-plus pages of tar-sands smear for a world readership of 50 million. Prentice has shrugged it off. But big oil needs big money. And any big money looking for big profit is going to see the word "risk" writ large over that kind of attention.

There's a track record of success for this kind of advocacy aimed at foreign markets buying Canadian resources. Ask old-growth forest loggers, sealers and pipeline boosters. These campaigns have scored even when industry has had political support from a sitting president.

And don't think the grassroots are leaving it to a slick media campaign alone. Just this weekend, Washington also played host to Power Shift 2009, a youth summit that brought 12,000 young people focused on climate change to the city, and Monday was their lobby day.

Also on Monday, a delegation of indigenous youth from Alberta delivered a letter to Senator John Kerry's office protesting the effects of tar sands extraction on their communities, because Prentice was expected to be dropping by.

But most of all, the oil lobby just doesn't have the presidential backing it is used to. As Dan Woynillowicz of the Alberta-based Pembina Institute says, "The prime minister is trying to hug Obama and pretend there's no daylight between their respective positions, but their emphasis is completely different. Obama's first choice for oil security is to get off it."

Prentice went to the States actually hoping to sell his drag-your-feet climate approach in meetings with Energy Secretary Steven Chu (the Nobel laureate physicist who vowed to make fighting global warming his first priority); the president's special envoy on climate change, Todd Stern (one of the originators of Kyoto during the Clinton era); and new Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson (who is lifting the ban on California's ambitious emission controls). These are some of the most sophisticated and powerful energy innovators in the world.

Was Prentice on acid? Well, within the terms of the U.S.-Canada clean energy dialogue initiated during Obama's visit to Ottawa, he might have had reason to hope. There's a lot of talk in the agreement that both leaders signed about "clean energy technology" -- code for the controversial and costly carbon capture and sequestration technology on which Canada is hanging its tar sands greenwash hopes.

But getting past diplomacy and the power of spin demands a closer read of the terms.

All the specifics on carbon capture technology in the agreement refer to coal and coal-fired plants. Obama is clearly investing in carbon capture, but it is a small component of a much broader effort.

And as Casey-Lefkowitz points out, the word "oil" simply does not appear in the document. The omission is significant.

Harper and Prentice were hoping that Obama will buy Alberta oil as part of a national security effort to wean the U.S. from foreign oil. But it is now clear that the president's approach links the post-carbon vision with economic recovery and with national and environmental security.

"If Canada wants to engage the U.S., it will have to come to the table with something of substance," says Woynillowicz.

This is unlikely, to say the least. Watch out, though, because the business press is already starting to present the U.S. rejection of a fossil fuel future as "protectionism." How absurd is that?

Of course, one expects nothing less from the Tories than pulling out all stops to save Alberta's oily butt. But there was one more notable Canadian act in the tar sands play this week. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff also kissed up to Alberta's oil biz last weekend in a speech to Edmonton's Chamber of Commerce. He jumped on the tar sands bandwagon, calling it "an integral part of the future of Canada." What planet does he live on, I wonder?

Those of us who live on Earth know that all the talk about climate emergency is no longer for the purpose of doing nothing about it. But there's even more than world-saving involved here. We're talking lost votes if this keeps up.

Yes, Canada's economy is fractured in two places. Both our manufacturing and resource industries are wounded. The same is true in the States, only add a seriously crippled financial sector. If the foundation of our economy is wobbly, theirs is close to broken. New figures show America's GDP dropped by 6.2 per cent and ours by only a bit more than half that amount, at 3.4 per cent.

Yet Obama has had the courage to see and act on the links between economic recovery, environmental regeneration and social justice. This is the new face of liberalism.

And we can't go too much longer here without hopping aboard.

Obama is betting his empire on the post-carbon future, while Harper and Ignatieff are banking Canada on the past. They are stuck in the Dion paradigm from the last election. But the world has moved on. Green policies are no longer synonymous with an incompetent, inarticulate leader who doesn't know how to sell them. The green revolution is now being represented by the most popular and powerful man in the world.

Harper will never wise up. But what about Ignatieff? If he wants to recoup, he'd better get himself to Washington first thing and study hard at the feet of Obama's most brilliant advisers. And then come back with a 10-point plan that will please the vast majority of Canadian voters -- 64 per cent of whom (including 47 per cent of Albertans) say, according to this weekend's Ipsos Reid poll, that development of Alberta's tar sands should be halted until a clean method can be found.

There is no time to waste getting started on a post-carbon vision for Canada.

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