03/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Fends Off Neighbor-Lady's Advances

The President will visit America's largest trading partner on Feb. 19th, but for the five hours he's in Ottawa, he'll barely leave Air Force One.

This is an important diplomatic lesson that Canada had better understand. America's Canadian relationship is vitally important, but Canada's current Prime Minister needs to comprehend that America holds the best cards and will probably agree to very little until Canada's government stabilizes and America's economy is on more solid ground.

Central to these discussions will be the future of oil and gas from Alberta's Tar Sands mega-project which produces 1.3 million barrels of gas daily. Canada's economy depends heavily on supplying America with most of its oil and gas. During the economic downturn American demand has decreased by 1 million barrels per day.

In the New York Times recently, Andrew Nikiforuk, the author of a scathing expose,entitled Tar Sands claimed that declining demand has resulted in "the withdrawal of anywhere from $50 to $100 billion in capital".*

Gleefully sensing a long-awaited moment of weakness, environmental groups across North America are quickly uniting under the slogan 'Dirty Oil vs a Green Economy'. 14 groups including Sierra Club, Toronto's Environmental Defence, and Washington DC's Earthworks are working together in a coalition called Obama2Canada arguing that the moment has come to stop Alberta's environmental devastation which produces more ghg emissions than the whole of New Zealand. Man-made lakes of liquid toxic waste (the Equivalent of 300 Love Canals) now cover 130 sq kmsnear Fort McMurray, Alberta. Among the world's largest dams, these poisonous ponds can be seen from space.

But the author of Tar Sands wonders even if Obama listens to the environmentalists will he be able to refuse Canada's hardline Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper -- a George Bush crony, and, like Bush, the son of an oil executive -- rose to power with the support of his native, oil-rich Alberta. Harper needs American oil money to prop up his government. Still, what Harper thinks may no longer be very important. The country has tired of his manipulative brand of realpolitik, and many guess his term in office is finite.

These days, Harper sustains a rickety minority government by adopting liberal policies that are completely foreign to his political nature. An awkward man at the best of times, these painful efforts are like witnessing the public performance of a country musician trying to learn reggae.

The Canadian whose opinions are most likely to interest Barack Obama is Michael Ignatieff**, a former director of Harvard's School of Government, and a close personal friend of Obama insiders Lawrence Summers and Samantha Power. Ignatieff has taken up the reins of Canada's Liberal party. And it is Ignatieff who holds the future of Harper's embattled government in his hands. In addition to their pro-environmental stance, Ignatieff's party traditionally has very little sympathy with anything that makes one region of the country disproportionately rich and powerful to the disadvantage of the rest of Canada.

And yes, throughout North America the time is also right for radical environmental change. We no longer have to worry about losing our prosperity for the sake of the environment. Our prosperity is gone. Let the clean-up begin.

In a telephone interview with the, Andrew Nikiforuk says it's important to remember that Alberta's bitumen based oil is "dangerous, dirty and dwindling". Nikiforuk says now is the time to focus on a new approach to energy, one that includes smart grids and electric cars...Business as usual is just not going to work.

He may well be right. A good crisis is a terrible thing to waste...

PS a free .pdf download of the entire text of Andrew Nikiforuk's Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent will be available on this blog page on March 16th.

*The full NYT interview with Andrew Nikiforuk can be retrieved here.

** A NYT profile of Michael Ignatieff (who contributes regularly to the paper's Sunday Magazine) can be retrieved here