President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper papered over their differences on energy and global warming policy in Ottawa today even as the two leaders pledged to work together on sharing low-carbon energy technologies.
At a joint press conference in the Canadian capital, Obama and Harper talked up a new senior-level "U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue" that they said will allow for cross-border cooperation on a range of energy, science and technology issues.
"As two relatively wealthy countries, it's important for us to show leadership in this area," Obama said. "I think the Clean Energy Dialogue is an extraordinary beginning because right now there are no silver bullets to solve all of our energy problems. We're going to have to try to a whole range of things. And that's why sharing technology, sharing ideas, sharing research and development is so important."
Obama's comments on energy were his first on foreign soil since becoming president a little over a month ago. For Harper, the meeting marked a chance for the conservative leader to push for a North American climate partnership, something he has been seeking since immediately after last November's election.
Speaking with reporters, Obama acknowledged Canada's hot-button environmental debate over Alberta's oil sands, which environmentalists and others have been warning should not get any special exemptions in an international global warming agreement.
"Here in Canada, you have the issue of the oil sands," the president said. "In the United States, we have issues around coal, for example, which is extraordinarily plentiful and runs a lot of our power plants. And if we can figure out how to capture the carbon, that'd make an enormous difference in how we operate. Right now, at least, the technologies are not cost-effective."
Both Obama and Harper insisted that they were limited in what they could do, given that the new U.S. administration still has not spelled out all of its energy and environmental policies, including its global warming plans.
"We have to complete our domestic debate and discussion around these issues," Obama said, before turning to the U.N. climate negotiations scheduled to conclude in December. "My hope is we can show leadership so that by the time the international conference takes place in Copenhagen, that the United States has shown itself committed and ready to do its part."
Balancing economic, environmental concerns
Details on the U.S.-Canada partnership released this afternoon by the White House explain the two countries will team up on deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies, building off experience on the North Dakota-Weyburn pipeline project launched in 2000. Obama and Harper also agreed to have their governments share information on placing energy-saving meters in residential and commercial buildings.
U.S. and Canadian officials will meet in the coming weeks to hash out details on their new energy dialogue.
During the press conference, Obama previewed the partnership and also talked up his approach for establishing a mandatory limit on greenhouse gas emissions -- even in the face of severe economic distress.
"There are going to be a number of different ways to go after this problem," Obama said. "We've suggested a cap-and-trade system. There are other countries who have discussed the possibilities of carbon tax. I think there's no country on Earth that is not concerned about balancing dealing with this issue on the environmental side and making sure that in the midst of a severe recession that it's not having too much of an adverse impact on economic growth and employment."
In Canada, Harper has come under fire for proposing climate change goals that emphasize reducing emissions intensity -- that is, emissions measured against economic output, rather than absolute cuts. But he explained today that his approach would line up with mandatory limits that Obama planned to take on in the United States.
"We'll seek opportunities to harmonize, but you know, the approaches aren't that different," Harper said. "If I look at the proposals in the Obama election platform and our own, the reality is that generally speaking, the targets are more or less the same."
Harper also signaled interest in the U.S. climate debate and hinted that Canada's actions had been slowed by minimal progress on the issue during the Bush administration.
"We'll be watching what the U.S. does with a lot of interest for the obvious reasons," Harper said. "Canada has had great difficult developing a regulatory regime alone in the context of an integrated continental economy. It's hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we're competing with an unregulated economy south of the border."
Click here to read the U.S.-Canada dialogue.