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Canada fights ‘dirty’

Scott Tong Jun 6, 2011

Canada fights ‘dirty’

Scott Tong Jun 6, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Today was the last day for the public to weigh in on a new pipeline to carry Canadian oil to the U.S. We already buy Canadian crude, but whether to pipe in a lot more has become a bitter fight in Washington. That’s because the product going through the pipe is a controversial crude known as oil sands. And wouldn’t you know it, those nice Canadians are playing political hardball to promote them.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Scott Tong reports.

Scott Tong: Let’s play word association. I say Canada, you say something predictable:

People-on-street: Pancakes, maple syrup. Their accent, like “aboot” and “ibeeprofen,” that’s my favorite. Alanis.

And of course…

Man-on-street: They’re very polite.

Canadians: Americans, but on decaf. Which makes this next one downright loony.

Graham Saul: The government of Canada has crossed an ethical line.

Unethical? Environmental activist Graham Saul is with the Climate Action Network. He accuses his own government of playing climate bad guy around the world.

Saul: There was quite a coordinated effort to challenge a variety of clean fuels and clean energy provisions in the state of California, in Washington, in many other states and in Europe.

At issue: Canadian crude, which is embedded in sand. And critics say, it’s one of dirtiest oils of the world. It takes steam generators and other kinds of heat to get the oil out. All that energy means a lot of carbon pollution. And high-carbon fuels are getting banned around the world. So, Canada’s been pushing back.

Marketplace has obtained internal Canadian government memos describing a “pro-active approach… to ensure that the oil keeps a flowing.” We’ve got them on our website — click here.

Again, Graham Saul.

Saul: The Canadian government should not be a public relations arm of the oil industry.

Records show Canadian diplomats met with what they call “like-minded allies,” like BP and Shell. The oil sands province of Alberta has hired D.C. lobbyists.

Tom Corcoran: We’ve been working very closely with the Canadian officials.

Former Illinois congressman Tom Corcoran runs a group now under contract with Alberta. The group is called the Center for North American Energy Security. It’s funded by oil companies, and it’s joined a legal fight to let the U.S. military buy Canadian oil.

Corcoran: That reduces our dependence on the Middle East, on North Africa. Those are countries which are not stable. They’re not friendly to the United States, they’re just the opposite of Canada.

Alberta confirmed the contract. The Canadian embassy declined an interview. To be fair, both sides lobby hard. And both agree the oil sands have hurt Canada’s reputation. Still, Ottawa is increasingly pro-oil, says Keith Brownsey at Mount Royal University. That’s in Calgary, the home of conservative party Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who just won a majority in parliament. So, what’s Calgary like? Well, this may help.

“Dallas” TV show theme music

It’s oil patch money, says Brownsey. He’s standing downtown.

Keith Brownsey: You throw a stone, you’re gonna break a window in an oil company. Now just to our right if we look up 58 stories we’ve got the new Encana building.

One of Canada’s oldest oil firms. A block up, the Calgary Petroleum Club.

Brownsey: You go two blocks north of us, you’ve got Statoil, you’ve got Murphy Oil.

Point is…

Brownsey: Our image is becoming increasingly the image of Calgary, of the oil and gas sector in this country. And that’s not always a positive thing here.

Canada the villain, eh? Calgary oil analyst Dave Yager’s long been sick of that one.

Dave Yager: I’ve been a second-class citizen in my own country all these years.

He says anywhere in the world, oil production happens to be non-aesthetic.

Yager: So you’ve got an ugly industrial operation right off the side of a highway in a free country with a jet airport. It’s pretty easy to get up there, look around and declare it awful.

But compared to Mideast producers, Canada may be the boy scout.

Yager: We don’t kill anybody up here. We don’t oppress anyone. We’re not going to use the profits from tar’s oil sands production to build a nuclear bomb and annihilate Israel.

We can assume Canadian diplomats are more diplomatic when they promote oil sands in Washington and beyond. But with what’s at stake, they ain’t playing softball either.

I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

To browse the documents mentioned in this story, click here.

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