Harper’s Pro-Tar Sands Claims Looking Worse for Wear After New Group Launches ‘Reality Check’ Website

Prime Minister Stephen Harper took to the stage today at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York to discuss Canada’s economy, environmental regulations and support of the Keystone XL pipeline among other things. The Prime Minister’s appearance marks a break in a steady stream of tar sands advertising shouldered primarily by Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

Harper’s overarching message when it came down to pipeline politics was this: Canada is working on its emissions problem, so Americans concerned about the environmental fallout of the Keystone pipeline needn’t worry. Besides, there are far more important economic benefits associated with the energy project that the U.S. “can’t afford to turn down.”

That is to say, the Prime Minister’s address, a rarity these days, brought little else than more of the same.

True enough, no one expected anything different from Harper, a leader intent on accelerating tar sands development. Although the familiar talking points are sounding worse-for-wear these days, as environmental groups, prominent scientists and energy economists warn that government misinformation about the tar sands is endangering Canada’s future prospects, international reputation and the global climate.

According to a newly-released website, Oil Sands Reality Check, the Harper government is misrepresenting the facts about the Alberta tar sands – and what countries like the U.S. should be considering when looking at shared oil infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL.

As far as Harper is concerned, Canada is and will remain pivotal to the energy debate.

“Whether it’s coal, hydroelectricity, uranium, natural gas, oil – you name it – Canada is one of the largest producers in the world and in almost every case with some of the largest reserves in the world. So whatever the energy mix of the future, as I tell people, Canada will be a major provider,” he told his New York audience today.

“Look, environmental challenges, they are real, they have to be dealt with. In terms of, probably one I do want to talk about today – the Keystone pipeline in particular and the oil sands – let me just talk a little bit about the environmental side of that, because I know that’s something we’re going to be focused on.

Oil sands, first of all, one needs to put this in a global perspective. Less that one-tenth of 1 percent of global emissions are in the oil sands. And so it’s you know almost nothing globally.”

The claim that tar sands emissions are negligible on a global emissions scale is a common refrain within the Harper government, and was excellently taken to task by Visual Carbon’s Barry Saxifrage yesterday in the Vancouver Observer.

Harper admitted emissions from the tar sands are “a significant part of our own pressures in terms of our targets – the targets we share. We share a Copenhagen target with the United States, we have the same target and obviously constraining the emissions there in the oil sands is going to be important.” However, as Oil Sands Reality Check reports, expolitation of the tar sands is the main reason Canada will fail to meet such targets.

The oil industry, Harper claimed, has seen a “25% reduction over the past decade or so in emissions intensity out of the oil sands.”

According to Environment Canada data, emissions from the tar sands increased some 267 percent between 1990 and 2011 as Postmedia’s Mike De Souza reported today, although per-barrel emissions have gone down some 26 percent. The overall result, however, is increasing emissions set to scale up alongside tar sands expansion. Per-barrel emissions reductions have plateaued over the last 5 years.

According to Oil Sands Reality Check, the tar sands represent Canada's largest growing source of emissions, and produce 3 to 4 times more emissions in the production phase than conventional oil.

Prime Minister Harper, while attempting to defend Canada’s emissions troubles, also pointed the finger at other oil-producing regions.

“The province of Alberta already has a technology fund and a regulatory approach in the oil sands that is going to lead to even more investments in the technology that will continue to reduce our emissions. Truth of the matter is, heavy oil out of the oil sands – yes, there are emissions issues – but no more so than heavy crudes in other parts of the world, including Venezuela and I don’t have to tell you, there are reasons beyond just emissions why you’d want to have your oil from Canada rather than from Venezuela.”

Prime Minister Harper went on to list his top 4 reasons why the U.S. can’t afford to turn down the Keystone XL pipeline. The first has to do with Canada’s environmental performance, he said. Secondly, the U.S. would be mistaken to turn away the jobs  – 40,000 by his estimates – associated with the project.

His third point has to do with domestic energy security. The pipeline, Harper said, “will bring in enough oil to reduce American offshore dependence by 40 percent.” Although a shale oil glut in the U.S. combined with the Keystone’s port destination, have many suggesting the oil is slated for export. Finally, when you weigh all the factors, he said, the project enjoys broad bi-partisan support.

“You can rest assured that making our emissions targets, including in the oil sands sector, is an important objective for the government of Canada.”

He added, “the only real immediate environmental issue here, is do we want to increase the flow of oil from Canada via pipeline or via rail. If you don’t do the pipeline, more and more is going to be coming in via rail which is far more environmentally challenging in terms of emissions and risks and all kinds of other things." The increasing emphasis put on rail as an alternative mode of transport is misleading and a false choice, says Greenpeace energy and climate campaigner Keith Stewart.

Alongside the climate issue, the tar sands also face signifiant problems in the instances of wildlife, air and water issues, human rights and economics.

Despite this, Prime Minister Harper says, "I think all the facts are overwhelmingly on the side of approval of [the Keystone XL pipeline]."

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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