ENERGY POLICY:

U.S., Canadian groups gear up to halt oil sands development

The Sierra Club, Greenpeace and 28 other North American environmental groups are calling on the United States and Canada to boost investments in clean energy, halt industrial fishing in the Arctic and freeze expansion of the Alberta's oil sands -- a key source of U.S. petroleum imports and greenhouse gas emissions.

The groups' joint declaration, signed in Washington on Tuesday, comes as Democratic leaders in Congress attempt to pass legislation that would cap U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases at 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 while boosting renewable energy production.

The eastern Canadian province of Ontario, meanwhile, is considering legislation that calls for 10,000 megawatts of new renewable energy and 6,000 MW of conservation by 2015, among other things.

The environmental groups hope to use the North American action as a catalyst as U.N. countries broker a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Canada and the United States will be among nations gathering in Copenhagen in December for the next round of U.N. climate negotiations.

"We plan to make sure that sources of greenhouse gas emissions like the tar sands are not given a free ride," explained Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Attorney Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, referring to Alberta's vast oil shale deposits.

Current oil sands production results in 5 percent to 15 percent greater greenhouse gas emissions than average crude oils used in the United States, according to a recent report by IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Canada's share of U.S. oil imports could rise to a range of 23 percent to 37 percent in 2035 from 19 percent today, depending on a variety of scenarios.

A "key challenge for continued cooperation" is the development of a common framework for regulating greenhouse gases, the CERA report states.

In their joint declaration, the environmental groups called on the U.S. and Canadian governments to halt expansion of oil sands development and infrastructure.

"Tar sands oil production is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions pollution in Canada and is having a devastating impact on Boreal ecosystems, migratory birds and air and water quality," the declaration notes.

NRDC's Casey-Lefkowitz predicted that the 30 environmental groups will be a strong lobbying force with real potential to halt oil sands production, despite its staunch support from Alberta's government. Public support is more mixed.

Polling conducted by academic researchers for Canadian petroleum companies showed that 42 percent of respondents have a positive view of the oil sands, while 30 percent have a negative view. Forty-six percent of respondents said oil sands producers have not done a good job of balancing the environment and the economy, while 22 percent of respondents said producers have.

Sixty-four percent of Canadians agreed that oil sands are "important to providing a secure supply" for Canada's future oil needs, according to the survey, which was conducted on behalf of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Greg Stringham, a vice president with the petroleum producers group, contended that developing the oil sands is not incompatible with the environmental groups' broader energy agenda.

"The Canadian oil sands ... are continuing to use new technologies and lower energy inputs to supply this oil to the market," he said. "In looking at our energy future, we know it must be environmentally sustainable, provide North American jobs and contribute to a secure energy supply."

Protecting the Arctic's waters and forests is also at the top of the environmental groups' agenda.

The organizations called on Canada and the United States to incorporate climate science into policy and permitting decisions affecting natural resources, as well as to halt industrial fishing and development in the Arctic Ocean until there is "precautionary" ecosystems-based management of industrial activities.

Canada and the United States should also protect North America's boreal forests, which occur between northern latitudes of 50 degrees and 60 degrees, the declaration continues.

U.S. environmental groups that signed the declaration include NRDC, Environment America, Friends of the Earth, the National Audubon Society, the National Tribal Environmental Council, the Izaak Walton League, the League of Conservation Voters, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Center for International Environmental Law, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, the Trust for Public Land, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation, Population Connection, Oceana, Earthjustice, the Land Trust Alliance, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and American Rivers.

Canadian environmental groups that signed the declaration include the Canadian Wilderness Foundation, Greenpeace Canada, Sierra Club Canada, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Pollution Probe, the Pembina Institute, Équiterre, Climate Action Network Canada and Environmental Defence Canada.

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