WASHINGTON - The issue of Canada's carbon-heavy oil sands may be stickier than ever as Barack Obama readies for his lightning visit to Ottawa tomorrow.
But as environmental pressure mounts on the U.S. president to adopt a hard line against Alberta's "dirty oil," sources in Washington expect Obama to sidestep the question so as not to sully a journey intended to send a positive message of renewed Canada-U.S. engagement.
"Nobody is preparing an agenda that would sour the atmosphere. This is going to be all about renewing and refreshing," said Gordon Giffin, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada.
Giffin, who was involved in sweeping aside "potential aggravations" in the run-up to previous presidential visits to Ottawa during the Clinton era, said he expects the oil sands issue to be addressed in broader strokes, as the leaders discuss the prospects for a "continental approach" to energy and the environment.
"The 49th parallel is not a hermetically sealed border," Giffin said. "We share the air, we share the water, and there is a sense that the Obama administration is interested in working out these problems together."
Obama hinted at such a continent-wide approach to energy and the environment in an interview last night, outlining to the CBC's Peter Mansbridge the "possibility of a template that we can create between Canada, the United States and Mexico."
"It is possible for us to create a set of clean energy mechanisms that allow us to use things not just like oil sands, but also coal," said Obama. "The United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal, but we have our own homegrown problems in terms of dealing with a cheap energy source that creates a big carbon footprint."
Obama's pragmatic message on Canadian energy comes amid weeks of hard activism on the part of environmental and native groups, including a full-page ad yesterday in USA Today challenging what it called Ottawa's "flawed climate policy designed to allow tar sands expansion."
The ad, posted by environmental group ForestEthics, the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations communities, urged Obama not to provide "special treatment for Canada's fastest-growing source of (carbon) emissions."
Giffin told the Star the pressure is welcome, provided it leaves room for realistic solutions.
"We're not all going to be getting fuel from a corn cob to run our car next week," he said. "But there is every reason to believe that we can and will invest much more in technology as quickly as possible to provide the transition away from fossil fuels. Myself, I'd rather pay a premium for Alberta oil rather than continuing to import from Venezuela or the Middle East, if I know the premium is going toward clean-technology investment."