Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dirty Oil

Joseph Romm is upset because Obama has suggested that technological progress could make it possible to process Canada's tar sands safely.

I distrust Obama on this issue, too. It's nothing personal, though. I'd distrust any president's willingness to come down on the sensible side of a question like this. It's not really in the job description, as things currently stand, and there are enormous structural obstacles to doing the right thing even -- or especially -- if you decide to take a stab at it.

At the same time, I get a little tired of the liberal pretense that solving problems like the tar sands industry is a simple matter of "speaking truth to power."

If Obama would announce that tar sands are unhealthy for children and other living things, the theory goes, the companies exploiting them would withdraw in shame and be forced to seek honest work in the solar industry. The idea that diplomacy is a necessary and delicate affair remains an alien concept in some circles, and sometimes I wonder if a certain number of people on the left haven't internalized and adapted to the conservative axiom that when the USA talks, them furriners had better listen up, or else.

I'm not accusing Romm of that attitude, I hasten to add. But unlike him, I think that what's important in Obama's remarks is not what he said about some vague, dreamworld future in which tar sands are no longer an economic and environmental and moral disaster, but what he said about the present:

Obama declined to call the oil sands "dirty oil" in a White House interview yesterday with Peter Mansbridge of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., but acknowledged that the process "creates a big carbon footprint."

"So the dilemma that Canada faces, the United States faces, and China and the entire world faces is: How do we obtain the energy that we need to grow our economies in a way that is not rapidly accelerating climate change?"
Granting that Obama could secretly be planning to switch the entire country over to tar sands by 2010, a more reasonable interpretation is that he's trying diplomatically to acknowledge the theoretical economic value of tar sands, while pointing out that current extraction methods are unacceptable. It's hard to imagine what more he could say on his first official visit up north.

On second thought, it's not hard at all, because he actually did go quite a bit beyond the call of duty:
"I think, to the extent that Canada and the United States can collaborate on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they're emitted into the atmosphere, that's going to be good for everybody," Obama added. "Because if we don't, then we're going to have a ceiling at some point in terms of our ability to expand our economies...."
Perhaps I'm crazy, but it sounds as though Obama is saying that if we can't figure out how to extract this fuel safely, we're going to have to do without it.

It's quite possible that he doesn't mean it. But regardless, when you consider the dictates of diplomatic language and the strong gravitational pull of business as usual, that's a pretty staggering thing even to suggest. And it encourages me to believe that whether Obama is willing or able or allowed to tackle this problem, he does at least understand it. That may not be enough, but it's more than we've had in a long, long while.

In other news, tar sands really are horrific, just in case you didn't know.

UPDATE: I probably should've made it clear that I'm basing this argument on the assumption that there will be no technological fix for tar sands in my lifetime, and we'll be left with the choice of using them anyway, or leaving them in the ground. I tend to doubt that we'll make the right choice. But I'm also not absolutely positive we won't, which kind of surprises me.

(Photo by Peter Esseck.)


xan said...

A dropoff for tomorrow's Hope Blogging thingy: Scientists Treat Ancient Corpse With Intense Respect.

Link via Hecate's amazing sidebar/blogroll.

jaytingle said...

If it's any consolation, the Canadians may run out of natural gas before the are able to mine this crap in earnest. My wife didn't believe in peak oil until she got a look at some of this Albertan "fuel." It clearly resembles the stuff that a hardcore addict scrapes out of the pipe and attempts to re-smoke when all the good drugs are used up. Also the Chinese have contracted to purchase most of the recovered "fuel."