By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009
President Barack Obama will leave today for Canada -- his first foreign trip as president -- where he is expected to discuss trade and the environment with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
A top Obama aide said this week that the president's main message to Harper will be to reassure Canadians that the United States intends to maintain a robust trading relationship with its neighbor.
"This is no time to -- for anybody to give the impression that somehow we are interested in less rather than more trade," said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser. "And that's what -- that's the message that he'll underscore."
McDonough said the discussion will include some reassurances from Obama that "Buy American" trade provisions inserted into the economic stimulus legislation the president signed this week will not adversely affect trade.
Canadian officials were alarmed by the provision, which some think runs afoul of the bilateral trade agreements that guarantee unfettered commerce.
"The provision is obviously going to be implemented consistent with our international trade obligations, with our WTO obligations and with our NAFTA obligations," McDonough told reporters. "So I think my sense is . . . there will be no need to take umbrage or to be uneasy."
The environment will also be on the agenda for Obama and Harper, aides said. The pair will meet at Parliament Hill and will then hold a private working lunch, according to the public schedule. Obama also plans to talk with opposition leader Michael Ignatieff.
Environmental groups are pushing Obama to seek restrictions on tar sands oil, a dirtier form of oil that contributes about half of the oil imported into the United States from Canada.
"Tar sands oil is the fastest growing source of global warming emissions in Canada," a Sierra Club briefing paper said. "The integrity of any kind of continental climate change agreement would be entirely compromised if it were to offer special treatment for tar sands oil."
Canadians point out that processing the tar sands oil produces half as much carbon emissions as does the coal-fired plants that are common across the United States.
In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Obama said he thinks the oil sands create "a big carbon footprint" and said that is part of a broader dilemma facing the United States about how to get the energy it needs without contributing to climate change.
But he expressed optimism that the two countries can find ways to use technology to lessen the environmental impact from the sand oil. Canada is the leading provider of U.S. imported oil, accounting for about 20 percent, slightly more than Saudi Arabia.
"I think to the extent that Canada and the United States can collaborate on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they're emitted into the atmosphere, that's going to be good for everybody," Obama said.
Former Michigan governor James J. Blanchard (D), who served as ambassador to Canada during Bill Clinton's presidency, said Obama is seeking an effective compromise that can satisfy environmentalists while maintaining the trade relationship with Canada.