The Tar Sands and NAFTA


by Ben Lilliston • Ian Austen of the New York Times had an excellent article Wednesday on oil extraction from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Canada is now the largest oil supplier to the U.S. The article outlines the various environmental concerns of this extremely energy intensive operation, including impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and migratory birds.

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy  covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

One important driver the article doesn’t get into is the role of NAFTA in tar sands development, or more specifically the role of NAFTA’s Proportionality Clause (see analysis by the Parkland Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). This clause is so crazy it’s hard to believe. It actually requires Canada to make two-thirds of its domestic oil production and 60 percent of its current natural gas production available for export to the U.S. These requirements stay in effect, even if Canada needs these supplies for domestic purposes. There is little question that Canada’s NAFTA-burden is contributing to further tar sands development.

Oil extraction from the tar sands illustrates the complicated tangle between free trade agreements and local, national or international efforts to protect the environment and lower carbon use. The global climate talks scheduled for completion in Copenhagen in December could effect future tar sands production. After the November elections, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper proposed a U.S.-Canada climate deal that would exempt the tar sands – perhaps to pre-empt U.S. climate legislation and/or a COP15 agreement. And at the local level, recent efforts to establish a low carbon fuel standard in California,  11 Northeast states and Minnesota could also have repercussions for the tar sands.

IATP has a free news bulletin, Tar Sands Oil Review, if you’re interested in following this issue.

While the future of the tar sands has big implications for the environment and trade, it also symbolizes the extreme lengths we continue to take to feed our energy appetite and avoid reducing our energy use.

Originally published on January 9, 2009