Alberta ignores U.S. oil critics at its peril
Posted by mhudema on June 26, 2008
Don Martin, National Post Published: Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Claudia Cataneo/National PostSuncor oilsands, in Fort McMurray, Alta.
There was a time when being Alberta’s man in Washington D.C. involved golf rounds and cocktail circuits of non-stop fun.
As America’s most reliable energy supplier, the province rated a red-carpet reception in a national capital thirsting for secure oil. Not any more.
Gary Mar is not yet a political pariah, but he’s running an Alberta office in the Canadian embassy that’s fighting negative perception battles on multiple fronts.
Arguably the brightest Cabinet minister to grace former premier Ralph Klein’s front bench for more than a dozen years, he’s been representing the province in the U.S. capital for less than a year now and finds himself under increasing siege by an organized environmental backlash against the Alberta oil sands.
Mr. Mar is continuing to fight the threat of a U.S. energy bill that would prohibit federal agencies, including energy gobblers like the air force and post office, from buying oil, such as from the oil sands, that gives off above-normal emissions during production.
He opened a Washington newspaper last week on the day Senator John McCain was visiting Ottawa to headlines indicating the Republican presidential nominee rates Middle East oil preferable to the “dirty” oil sands version.
He watched this week as a gathering of U.S. Mayors pushed for a boycott of tar sands product as environmentally unacceptable energy. Then came the kicker: Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama is talking tough against importing oil that emits excessive greenhouse gases, presumably including oil from the oil sands.
It seems incredible that a secure source of a product that rising rapidly in price amid dire predictions of an imminent global shortage, suddenly seems vulnerable to a boycott from a nation depending on it for almost 10% of its consumption.
Mr. Mar takes a safe line in describing his mission. “It’s important that people understand we offer an important, safe, secure, environmentally responsible source of oil,” he told me this week. Easy to say. Harder to sell. And Mr. Mar knows it.
On a macro level, there’s not much common sense behind the environmentalist drive to divert oil sands product to faraway locations.
If the pipeline to the south is shut off, heavy oil will be shipped in gas-emitting tankers to China or India where it will be given a dirtier refining and burned in less fuel-efficient cars.
Besides, once the oil is floating on the high seas, any U.S. boycott could be circumvented by international brokers directing tankers to unload at any U.S. port, notes Mar.
But a weird irrationality is taking over U.S. politics on environmental matters and Alberta needs to be cautious about dismissing it as a lunatic fringe of green fanatics worried about dead ducks in the tar ponds. After all, you can forget federal or regional politicians if you want an accurate read on the public mood. The best pulse-taking politicians are the basic old grey mayors.
That’s why the embargo proposed by a U.S. conference of mayors this week can be interpreted as the proverbial dead canary in the coal mine: a warning that danger is about.
Alberta argues it’s better for America to deal with the emissions devil it knows instead of some unpredictable military regime or royal family that might cut off supply on a whim.
True, but the reputation of the province and indeed the country requires more than an image makeover or some vague regulations that cut emission intensity without reducing the actual discharge.
Signs of progress must be displayed soon to reassure Americans that while it’s hardly green, the oil sands are aiming to shake the label of The Most Destructive Project on Earth assigned to it by Toronto-based Environmental Defence.
There must be a cleaner way delivered faster and, given that Alberta has posted a $4.6-billion surplus, amid forecasts of a $12-billion surplus this year if world oil prices remain high, it seems the province can afford the damage control.
But a top official from Premier Ed Stelmach’s office recently confided to a private policy forum in Ottawa that piping carbon into underground sequestration will absorb 70% of the oil sands discharge, a figure most experts deride as a pipe dream. Deputy minister Ron Hicks also warned that the province would not accept a national or continental cap because it would transfer too much wealth from Albertans to “others”.
That’s an understandable reaction for a province sensitive to outside interests coveting its resource revenue mother lode.
But the U.S. mayors’ stand will soon be echoed by state and national politicians. And that means Gary Mar’s life in D.C. may never be fun again.