Last week, when U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Toronto, he endorsed an increased reliance on fossil fuels to meet America's insatiable energy appetite -- already the planet's most rapacious. As the city declared its first smog day, Mr. Cheney's comments alone were cause for gasps.
We know that fossil-fuel combustion creates climate change, unstable weather patterns and rising temperatures that threaten our food security and fresh water. The threat is clearly public. Yet Mr. Cheney commented, "Conservation may be a personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
Apparently the policy he has in mind is to provide Americans with enough oil to power their SUVs, now and forever. With recent sales figures showing light trucks and cars almost at par in new sales, the former oil executive left little doubt where he stood: Guzzle it and we will drill, from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.
To meet the power needs of a country that already produces 25 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases with only 4 per cent of the world's population, Mr. Cheney endorsed building a new power plant a week for the next 20 years. This means 1,300 new plants, many coal-reliant.
In so doing, he contradicted the findings of his own Energy Department, which last November concluded that simple energy efficiency measures could provide enough energy to substitute for 610 new plants. Another 180 could be substituted by expanding alternate sources such as wind, solar or geothermal energy. The report also recommended building high-efficiency, natural gas plants to replace older, coal-based ones.
Yet despite global evidence and his own government's recommendations, Mr. Cheney knew best. Coal, he said, is "not the cleanest source of energy," but will remain the largest source of U.S. electrical generation "for many years to come" in order to maintain "our way of life."
Ironically, the very measures he endorsed pose the biggest threats to Americans' way of life. With power prices already far higher than Canada's, alternative or efficient energy would shave more than $30-billion (U.S.) from Americans' bills. Cleaner and more efficient energy sources would reduce smog-causing particles by half and cut climate-changing greenhouse gases by a third. Does the Vice-President's definition of "way of life" exclude food, water and air quality? As ocean levels rise, perhaps Floridians moving inland can console themselves that their getaway car will at least have oil.
Mr. Cheney's announcement contradicts the global trend toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol on climate change, signed by 84 countries, was recently torpedoed by the Bush administration in favour of its overt policy of unsustainable supply.
One would hope, given the magnitude of Mr. Cheney's pronouncements, that the Americans' close neighbour and largest trading partner would have something to say. And, indeed, Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale tut-tutted the Cheney speech, calling conservation measures characteristic of "an advanced, intelligent society." I hope Mr. Goodale takes his tut-tutting into cabinet: Canada's history on greenhouse gas emissions is almost as dismal as the future that Mr. Cheney's proposals will create. Between 1990 and 1998, Canada increased greenhouse gas emissions by 13 per cent. That's a far cry from the 6 per cent reduction by 2012 to which we committed at Kyoto.
Like the Bush administration, Canada has yet to ratify Kyoto. If we had, perhaps our record would be better than with the agreement we did ratify after the Rio summit in 1992, in which we promised to stabilize emissions. They have since soared.
Unlike its environmental treaties, Canada is honouring its trade treaties and actively seeking to expand them. Even if our polite disagreement with the Americans over energy were heartfelt, NAFTA would render it impotent, because a continental energy policy is woven through NAFTA's fabric, making Canada virtually powerless to enact a sovereign energy policy. Instead, we allow subsidies for oil exploration to be exempted from NAFTA, while allowing environmental regulation to be classified as a non-trade tariff.
Measures to encourage development of alternative fuels are open to trade challenges -- allowing the Dick Cheneys of the world to haul Canada before trade tribunals if we dare attempt to find a more sustainable path.
It's disingenuous for Canada to express meek disapproval of U.S. energy policy. Because we signed away many of our energy rights, Mr. Cheney's speech marks an unsustainable future not only for Americans, but for Canadians as well.
Peter Tabuns is the executive director of Greenpeace Canada.
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