Alberta Government to Host Democrat Denial Tour of Tar Sands
Posted by mhudema on June 27, 2008
Canada wants U.S. to run on Alberta oil
|Canwest News Service|
WASHINGTON – Two years ago Friday, the government of Alberta parked a supersized oilsands dump truck on the National Mall in Washington, announcing to U.S. lawmakers that Canada was about to become the next big thing in the global petroleum market.
It was ostentatious display – the yellow behemoth stood five metres tall with four-metre-high tires – that helped put Alberta’s oilsands on the map for a Congress deeply worried in the post-9/11 era about the security of U.S. energy supply.
But the higher profile has come with a cost – now it’s Canadian oil that’s sparking fear and loathing on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. After playing defence for the past year against a dedicated U.S. environmental lobby, Canadian and Alberta officials were blindsided this week when big-city U.S. mayors and Barack Obama’s campaign announced their own distaste for “dirty” Alberta oil.
With record-high gas prices dominating U.S. election-year politics and fuelling public anger at Big Oil, Canadian officials are now girding for an intense and protracted fight to change the image of the oilsands, and to protect one of Canada’s richest exports to the U.S.
“Our big, big job is not so much lobbying. It’s educating,” says Allan Gotlieb, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1981 to 1989.
“It’s to make people understand that a lot of the criticism about the oilsands is unfair, and unwise, and potentially damaging to U.S. interests.”
The plan? Convert oilsands skeptics, one member of Congress at a time. The Alberta government is hosting two influential Democratic lawmakers – including the chairman of the House committee on energy and air quality – for a tour of the Athabasca oilsands next week. A similar tour is planned for congressional staffers later this summer, part of ongoing Canadian outreach aimed at highlighting efforts to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
“With U.S. lawmakers, we are letting them know that we don’t view it to be a showdown between the economy and the environment,” says Gary Mar, the Alberta government’s representative in Washington. “We know we have to show leadership on both.”
Mar cites now-familiar industry statistics about environmental advances in oilsands production. The amount of greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil has dropped 45 per cent over the past decade. Where five barrels of fresh water were used in the production of one barrel of oil, some companies now use less than a barrel of water, Mar says.
But that message has, increasingly, been lost amid a political push by U.S. lawmakers – including both Obama and Republican candidate John McCain – to break U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Until recently, Americans considered ‘foreign oil’ to be primarily product imported from the Saudi sheiks, or politically unstable Nigeria and politically unfriendly Venezuela.
What frustrates Canadians in Washington is that Hugo Chavez’s heavy oil – some of it brilliantly marketed as cheap heating fuel to residents in the Bronx and other poor U.S. communities – has somehow become less offensive to environmentalists than petroleum from America’s stable and culturally familiar northern neighbour.
“The environmental movement is interested in stigmatizing oil, and it suits their purpose to focus on oilsands oil, because that seems to be where the growth is,” says a senior Canadian government official.
“They would have liked the United States to have moved off of oil yesterday.”
The reality is far more complicated for Americans. Canadian oil last year supplied 18 per cent of the U.S. market. Fully half of the oil refined in Illinois – Obama’s own state – comes from Canada, and half of that is from Alberta’s oilsands. Demand is only expected to grow, with long-term plans for 90 per cent of oil refined in the U.S. Midwest to come from Canada.
“In the end, Senator Obama has to get real,” says Dave Sykuta, executive director of the Illinois Petroleum Council.
“Canadian oil is in the bull’s eye right now because environmental groups have decided to make it their cause. But without it, the Midwest would be screwed.”
Gordon Giffin, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada during the Clinton administration, said there remains “a very big void in understanding” among U.S. policy-makers about the extent of Canadian oil resources and the industry’s increasing environmental sensitivity.
Giffin said he was “frankly stunned” by the U.S. mayors’ approval of an anti-oilsands resolution at their conference this week, and “the industry in Canada was caught off guard and similarly surprised.”
Despite intense and ongoing Canadian lobbying efforts about the oilsands, “I don’t think it’s sufficient,” Giffin says.
“I’m not being critical of anybody. But there hasn’t been an adequate recognition of the intensity of the argument on the (environmental) side. If you cede the podium to the other side, then negative impressions get created.”
With the next president and Congress expected to accelerate efforts to develop alternative energy sources, and potentially pass new global warming legislation, a key goal for Canada is to ensure the U.S. pursues a continental energy and climate strategy. Ottawa would like nothing more, for example, than to be included in any future cap-and-trade plan for greenhouse gas emissions.
Canadian officials believe the majority of U.S. lawmakers – even Democrats who tout themselves as environmentalists first – are ultimately pragmatists. Notwithstanding tough campaign talk, Ottawa believes U.S. national interests will eventually trump the “special” interests that demand attention during the presidential campaign.
Alberta’s Mar argues it’s simply not logical for U.S. lawmakers or environmentalists to make the province’s oilsands out as America’s energy enemy.
“If you stop oilsands from coming into the United States, you will increase the reliance of the U.S. on other sources of oil – perhaps Venezuela, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia,” he says.
“Alberta oil will go somewhere else, perhaps China, perhaps India. The ability of environmentalists to influence how that oil is used in those jurisdictions is very limited.”