STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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US Fuel Law Bans Tar Sands

Posted by mhudema on September 16, 2008

Alberta blindsided by U.S. fuel law
Ottawa, province must work together to protect our interests on Capitol Hill
Paula Simons
The Edmonton Journal

The U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act passed last December, without a fuss on this side of the border.

Yet Section 526 of the 822-page piece of legislation should have set Canadian alarm bells ringing. The section forbids any federal agency — such as the Defense Department or the U.S. Postal Service — from buying “synthetic” fuel from non-conventional sources for any “mobility-related” uses.

The section was authored by Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, and chair of the House of Representatives committee on oversight and government reform.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Defense, Waxman made the law’s intent clear:

“This provision ensures that federal agencies are not spending taxpayer dollars on new fuel sources that will exacerbate global warming,” Waxman wrote. “This provision is also applicable to fuel derived from tar sands, which also produce signficantly higher greenhouse gas emissions than are produced by comparable fuel from conventional petroleum sources.”

How practical the law is remains unclear — after all, it’s not as if you can buy special oil or gasoline derived exclusively from oilsands. The crude we export comes from a mix of conventional and non-conventional oil. (Right now, Alberta produces about 1.2 million barrel of synthetic crude a day, versus 586,000 barrels a day of conventional oil.) It’s hard to fathom how the U.S. Postal Service or Defense Department could ever prove to Congress that they weren’t buying gas or jet fuel derived, in part, from synthetic crude.

Still, neither the Alberta government, nor the federal Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade seems to have realized the potential impact of the Energy Independence and Security Act before it passed.

As my Journal colleague Archie McLean first revealed last week, the Alberta government only learned the details of section 526 when the Globe and Mail broke the story last Jan. 15, a month after it became law.

It does seem outrageous. The Alberta government has a special trade office in Washington, with a budget of $1.4 million a year and a staff of four, headed by former Alberta cabinet minister Gary Mar, whose job it is to promote and protect this province’s economic interests.

Mar admits his office missed the importance of the section — but he blames the mix-up on the convoluted American legislative process.

“Section 526 wasn’t in the original text of the act. It was an amendment that came late in the stages of debate,” he says.

“But even if someone had seen it, given the context, they might not have been concerned.”

Mar says Waxman originally framed his amendment to focus on technology to turn coal into liquid fuel and sold it that way to the House. No one, he says, including the petroleum industry, understood that Section 526 would ban the use of synthetic fuels.

Still, if the Globe could see that the Energy Independence and Security Act might be a problem, why couldn’t the Alberta trade office? It’s embarrassing to think that a matter of this much importance to our province’s economy somehow flew under our provincial radar.

It’s not fair to put all the blame on Mar and his tiny staff, though. It’s not actually a provincial responsibility to monitor and lobby American legislators. That’s the job of the federal government, specifically the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. On Monday, no one at Foreign Affairs could tell me exactly when the department first became aware of the implications of the Energy Independence and Security Act.

But it’s clear that Ottawa dropped the ball — failing to head this legislation off at the pass, failing to give the Alberta government any warning it was coming.

With the U.S. economy sliding into recession, protectionist sentiment south of the border is heating up. No matter who wins the presidency, we’ll likely see a more protectionist Congress when the American elections are over.

At the same time, the international public relations campaign against the oilsands — or tar sands — grows louder all the time. Even if a law like the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act poses little practical risk to our oil exports, it poses a significant political threat, by singling out and demonizing, as it does, synthetic crude as a particular environmental threat. Whether the criticism is justified or not, our oilsands have become a most convenient international whipping boy for green activists.

All told, there’s never been a more crucial time for the province and the federal government to be working together to protect our interests on Capitol Hill. It’s no easy task to outlobby the lobbyists, especially in a cutthroat political culture like Washington’s. But at the very least, we should be able to rely on our politicians, diplomats and civil servants to be vigilant when it comes to proposed legislation that could have a major influence on national economic and political interests.

© The Edmonton Journal 2008

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