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July 02, 2013

Taking the Tar Sands Challenge

Asking American Companies to Reject the World's Dirtiest Fuel

By Michael Marx, director of Beyond Oil, and Todd Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics

Last week the president challenged America to lead the world on climate solutions. Many American corporations are already on board, investing in high efficiency cars and trucks. Creating more fuel-efficient vehicles can have a huge impact on oil use and our climate. Everybody wins with increased efficiency. Companies save money. U.S. carbon emissions drop. And automakers push the boundaries of technology as they compete to build the highest efficiency cars and trucks.

Innovation driven by cost saving and climate progress will not only position the U.S. as a leader, it will eventually get us beyond oil. But as the president also said in his climate speech, we will not get there overnight. America will continue to rely on fossil fuels for some time to come. True as this is, it is also true that all fuels are not created equal. Companies with fleets of cars and trucks have a critical role to play ensuring that as America raises efficiency and embraces renewable fuels, we also turn away from the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive sources of oil -- Canadian tar sands.

This week 58 groups representing millions of Americans and Canadians delivered an open letter to many of the largest North American corporations asking them to reduce or eliminate their use of fuel from refineries using tar sands. This comes on the heels of Sierra Club and ForestEthics' launch of a campaign to force soft drink giants Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper to stop using tar sands and raise the efficiency of their cars and trucks.

Tar sands is the dirtiest fossil fuel on earth. And quite simply, if we don't reign in tar sands development, we will not move forward on reducing climate pollution. Burning a gallon of gas from tar sands releases as much as 37 percent more carbon pollution than burning a gallon of gas from conventional oil. That means that the environmental benefit of raising fuel efficiency from 20 to 27 MPG would be wiped out if that vehicle is now burning oil from tar sands.

And carbon pollution is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tar sands. First, the tar sands are a human rights tragedy already.  Indigenous people oppose unchecked tar sands development and many report illnesses caused by toxic pollution from the largest industrial development on the planet. And the government of Canada has done nothing to help them. Canada's tar sands also lie under the Boreal forest, which stores ancient reserves of carbon and is one of our best natural defenses against climate change. Every step of the tar sands process, from mine, to pipeline, to refinery, to the gas tank, to the tailpipe releases toxic chemicals into the air and water, and threatens communities and wildlife with spills and contamination. Tar sands are the worst of the worst, and we don't need them. We have plenty of conventional oil sources to keep America moving as we transition away from fossil fuels.

Nineteen U.S. companies, including Walgreen's, Whole Foods, and Columbia Sportswear, have committed to taking action that reflects strong opposition to tar sands. And though it is difficult for individuals to know the source of their fuel at the gas pump, companies that buy large amounts of fuel do have control of what diesel and gasoline they buy. ForestEthics has tracked crude from Canadian tar sands directly to the 60 U.S. refineries that process it into fuel (mostly diesel). With this information, companies can demand that their suppliers stop buying from these refineries. Choosing tar sands-free fuel will add little cost, but make a big difference in limiting demand for this extreme fossil fuel, and reduce in U.S. carbon pollution.

Tar sands and the emergence of extreme carbon-intensive fuels is a complex problem that demands creative solutions. But this is an area where American companies have always excelled, and 19 have already made strides to be tar sands free. These are companies that are committed to reducing their climate pollution. They're also committed to responding to their customers -- and they know that increasingly, brands will be judged based on the decisions companies make about climate.

President Obama in the hot Washington, DC, summer sun said that, "A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come." High carbon fossil fuels -- in particular tar sands, the most destructive and carbon intensive source of oil -- have no place in our future or in our economy. And companies that take action to reduce oil use and avoid fuel from tar sands will distinguish themselves in ways that will be well rewarded by consumers and appreciated by future generations.

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