Tar sands test Obama’s green credentials

New pipeline is another indication that the US has failed to curb its oil addiction.

After a week in which WikiLeaks revealed in forensic detail how rich countries set about nixing a meaningful climate agreement at Copenhagen last year, climate-change hypocrisy looks increasingly like a fact of life. In the context of all the duplicity laid out by the leaked embassy cables, official doubletalk on emissions reductions is no more of a revelation than Russian corruption, or America's cosy relationship with the Saudis.

But as another round of climate talks limps to its conclusion with the usual cry of "a proper deal next year", Barack Obama has an opportunity to do something substantial about climate change. He could reject a proposal for an oil pipeline that would pump 900,000 barrels of the world's most polluting fuel – the oil squeezed out of Alberta's oil sands – to the oil refineries on America's Gulf Coast every day.

If the project – which would extend an existing pipeline running from Alberta to the midwest – goes ahead, America's dependence on a resource which has been described as "the dirtiest source of transportation fuel currently available" will be locked in for decades. You don't construct a 2,000-mile pipeline at the cost of $7bn if you plan to stop using it in a couple of years. US demand for Canadian tar sands will soar. Canada's oil companies will set about their task of converting Alberta's wilderness into greenhouse gases with ever greater feverishness.

It's hard to exaggerate how bad oil sands are. Turning this gritty mix of bitumen, sand and heavy metals into fuel is three times as energy-intensive as extracting conventional crude. The extraction process has poisoned Canada's surface water with mercury, arsenic and lead. Only yesterday it emerged that Canada's environment department has never tested the nearby Athabasca River for the presence of pollutants from the mining operation. This is despite the existence of a permanent laboratory downstream from the oil sands, which checks the Athabasca for the presence of all kinds of chemicals – but not oil sands pollutants. Huge tracts of Alberta now resemble Mordor.

The extension to the pipeline has already stalled twice. In July the US state department extended its review period for assessing the environmental consequences of the pipeline by 90 days. Then, in mid-October, with the Deepwater Horizon disaster still fresh in voters' minds just a fortnight ahead of the midterm elections, the government delayed once more. Crunch time is now approaching.

Hillary Clinton was criticised in October for letting slip that the government was "inclined to approve" the pipeline – before the end of the review period. As for Obama himself, he went quiet after admitting early last year that the oil sands' carbon footprint was a concern. A WikiLeaks cable from not long after gives the likely reason: he was urged to shut up on the subject, for fear of offending Canada's "sensitive" government.

Yesterday the No Tar Sands Oil Campaign, a group sponsored by most of America's environmental lobby groups, launched a $500,000 ad campaign calling for Obama to block the pipeline by calling for another audit of its environmental impacts. They claim doing so could prevent the next oil spill disaster, since a leak could endanger Nebraska's Ogallala Aquifer – the source of nearly 80 per cent of Nebraska's drinking water

Inevitably, Big Oil is fighting back. The American Petroleum Institute (API), Washington's biggest oil lobby, is launching its own campaign, saying that the pipeline's environmental impacts have been exaggerated and that Canadian oil will reduce America's dependence on the Opec cartel. It would, of course – but so would investing in clean energy.

But if Obama chooses to oppose the pipeline he might find he has the public's backing, despite the inevitable scrap in Washington. As Cindy Schild of the API conceded: "We've been promoting the economic benefits and jobs this resource can bring and we don't think it has been fully registering with the public."

Back in 2006, Obama said: "Our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe."

Obama must be acutely aware that, so far, his government hasn't been able to do much for those future generations. Allowing this pipeline to go through would be a sign that they don't really figure in the arithmetic of US politics at all. As long as oil is pumped through the pipe every green sentiment mouthed by Barack Obama or his successors will be a platitude. A government trying to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels doesn't prolong its dependence on the worst kind of fossil fuels.

The battle lines have been drawn – but do Obama and his government have the bottle to take the right side?

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Workers' rights after Brexit? It's radio silence from the Tories

Theresa May promised to protect workers after leaving the EU. 

In her speech on Tuesday, Theresa May repeated her promise to “ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained".  It left me somewhat confused.

Last Friday, my bill to protect workers’ rights after Brexit was due to be debated and voted on in the House of Commons. Instead I sat and watched several Tory MPs speak about radios for more than four hours.

The Prime Minister and her Brexit Secretary, David Davis, have both previously made a clear promise in their speeches at Conservative Party conference to maintain all existing workers’ rights after Britain has left the European Union. Mr Davis even accused those who warned that workers’ rights may be put at risk of “scaremongering". 

My Bill would simply put the Prime Minister’s promise into law. Despite this fact, Conservative MPs showed their true colours and blocked a vote on it through filibustering - speaking for so long that the time runs out.

This included the following vital pieces of information being shared:

David Nuttall is on his second digital radio, because the first one unfortunately broke; Rebecca Pow really likes elephant garlic (whatever that is); Jo Churchill keeps her radio on a high shelf in the kitchen; and Seema Kennedy likes radio so much, she didn’t even own a television for a long time. The bill they were debating wasn’t opposed by Labour, so they could have stopped and called a vote at any point.

This practice isn’t new, but I was genuinely surprised that the Conservatives decided to block this bill.

There is nothing in my bill which would prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  I’ve already said that when the vote to trigger Article 50 comes to Parliament, I will vote for it. There is also nothing in the bill which would soften Brexit by keeping us tied to the EU. While I would personally like to see rights in the workplace expanded and enhanced, I limited the bill to simply maintaining what is currently in place, in order to make it as agreeable as possible.

So how can Theresa May's words be reconciled with the actions of her backbenchers on Friday? Well, just like when Lionel Hutz explains to Marge in the Simpsons that "there's the truth, and the truth", there are varying degrees to which the government can "protect workers' rights".

Brexit poses three immediate risks:

First, if the government were to repeal the European Communities Act without replacing it, all rights introduced to the UK through that piece of legislation would fall away, including parental leave, the working time directive, and equal rights for part-time and agency workers. The government’s Great Repeal Bill will prevent this from happening, so in that sense they will be "protecting workers’ rights".

However, the House of Commons Library has said that the Great Repeal Bill will leave those rights in secondary legislation, rather than primary legislation. While Britain is a member of the EU, there is only ever scope to enhance and extend rights over and above what had been agreed at a European level. After Brexit, without the floor of minimum rights currently provided by the EU, any future government could easily chip away at these protections, without even the need for a vote in Parliament, through what’s called a "statutory instrument". It will leave workers’ rights hanging by a thread.

The final change that could occur after we have left the EU is European Court rulings no longer applying in this country. There are a huge number of rulings which have furthered rights and increased wages for British workers - from care workers who do sleep-in shifts being paid for the full shift, not just the hours they’re awake; to mobile workers being granted the right to be paid for their travel time. These rulings may no longer have legal basis in Britain after we’ve left. 

My bill would have protected rights against all three of these risks. The government have thus far only said how they will protect against the first.

We know that May opposed the introduction of many of these rights as a backbencher and shadow minister; and that several of her Cabinet ministers have spoken about their desire to reduce employment protections, one even calling for them to be halved last year. The government has even announced it is looking at removing the right to strike from transport workers, which would contradict their May’s promise to protect workers’ rights before we’ve even left the EU.

The reality is that the Conservatives have spent the last six years reducing people’s rights at work - from introducing employment tribunal fees which are a barrier to justice for many, to their attack on workers’ ability to organise in the Trade Union Act. A few lines in May’s speech doesn’t undo the scepticism working people have about the Tories' intentions in this area. Until she puts her money where her mouth is, nor should they. 

Melanie Onn is the Labour MP for Great Grimsby.