Rhetoric and Reality Clash on Obama's First Foreign Visit

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Inter Press Service

Rhetoric and Reality Clash on Obama's First Foreign Visit

Chris Arsenault

President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper walk down on the way to a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, February 19, 2009.(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

VANCOUVER - On his first foreign visit as U.S. president, Barack Obama's rhetoric of "hope" and "change" came face to face with the hard, divisive policy realities of climate change from Canada's tar sands, a growing insurgency in Afghanistan and the sputtering world economy.

Some 2,500 spectators lined the streets of Ottawa to watch the president's motorcade make its way to Parliament Hill, a marked contrast to the thousands of protesters who greeted former President George W. Bush during his last Canadian visit. While the Canadian public catches Obama fever, environmentalists and some aboriginal groups say they've been left in the cold by his energy policies.

"Obama must ask Canada to clean up its tar sands and to respect the rights of our aboriginal First Nations," said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipweyan First Nation, a community near the Alberta tar sands, the world's largest energy project.

While promising to press ahead with "carbon reduction technologies," Obama did not mention the tar sands directly during his visit. Extracting oil from the tar sands creates three times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional crude.

At the press conference following closed door meetings between President Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and their aides, the two leaders promised a "clean energy dialogue" focusing on plans to trap carbon dioxide underground and improvements to North America's electricity grid.

Standing in front of Canadian and U.S. flags, as the pomp and circumstance of international diplomacy dictates, Obama called climate change and the need to develop clean energy sources "the most pressing challenges of our time."

The Natural Resources Defense Council dubs tar sands crude, "the world's dirtiest oil." Canada is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the U.S., sending more than 1.2 million barrels per day to its southern neighbor.

Trade between the two countries is worth more than 1.6 billion dollars per day, making it the world's largest trading relationship. In addition to energy and the environment, the two leaders discussed bailouts for North America's auto industry and the general economic downturn.

"How we produce and use energy is fundamental for our economic recovery and also for our security and our planet," said Obama at the press conference.

Prior to Obama's Canadian visit, aboriginal and environmental groups placed a full-page add in the newspaper USA Today, stating that the tar sands "stands in the way of a new energy economy." The day before the presidential visit, activists from Greenpeace scaled a bridge in Ottawa to hang a banner reading: "Climate Leaders Don't Buy Tar Sands."

During his election campaign, Obama vowed to end the U.S.'s addiction to "dirty, dwindling, and dangerously expensive" oil. His campaign's energy guru, Jason Grumet, said greenhouse gas emissions from Canada's tar sands were "unacceptably high."

In an apparent about-face from his campaign promises, Obama refused to characterize tar sands crude as "dirty oil" in a pre-summit interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. While acknowledging that the sands creates "a big carbon footprint," Obama argued that technologies, including a plan from Alberta's provincial government to store carbon dioxide underground, could solve the problem.

The idea of sequestering and storing greenhouse gases underground, known as carbon capture, has yet to be implemented at any tar sands operations and critics are skeptical that it can work. The tar sands are Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Presently, tar sands oil extraction pumps 29.5 million tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere every year, equivalent to the exhaust from more than 5 million cars.

Even if carbon capture technology does prove to be effective, the sands create a host of other environmental challenges, water depletion being the most significant. Producing one barrel of tar sands oil requires at least three barrels of water; there is enough toxic water in tar sands tailings ponds to fill 2.2 million Olympic sized swimming pools.

"The devastation of our homelands in this short period of time is perplexing to my people since it is only a fraction of the time that these impacts have occurred compared to the thousands of years we have inhabited these lands," said George Poitras, former chief of the Mikisew Cree, another aboriginal community close to the tar sands.

In addition to energy and the economy, Obama and Harper also discussed the increasing violence in Afghanistan, where Obama has pledged to send 17,000 more U.S. troops as part of a "surge." Canada currently has 2,500 combat troops stationed around Kandahar who are set to leave in 2011.

Obama stated explicitly that he was not requesting more troops or money from Canada for the Afghan occupation.

A chorus of military leaders, including a top German general and Britain's ambassador in Kabul, have stated that the war cannot be won.

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