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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

Hollywood vs. oil sands? Not a fair fight Add to ...

Once again, Alberta’s oil sands have become a whipping boy for the rich and famous.

Actor Robert Redford is the latest in a recent procession of actors and celebrities to voice opposition to the province’s petroleum patch. In a short but powerful video released this week, Mr. Redford calls northern Alberta’s “the dirtiest oil on the planet” and casts the development in the most unflattering light imaginable, saying “toxic tar sands fuel” is helping to destroy the planet.

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The week before, singer Neil Young gave a speech in Washington that garnered international attention, comparing the sight of the oil sands to Hiroshima after it was annihilated by an atomic bomb. The singer did an air tour of the controversial resource development with one-time Hollywood starlet Daryl Hannah, better known these days for her political crusades than her movies.

Canadian-born director James Cameron is also among those who have visited the area. He has urged Alberta politicians to do more to protect First Nations lands from the titanic levels of pollution and destruction he said are caused by the oil sands.

Not surprisingly, many in Alberta are sensitive to the attacks by the entertainment crowd, whose regular treks to the oil sands have been dubbed “Hollywood eco-tourism.” Premier Alison Redford suggested this week that celebrities who criticize the oil sands but travel about in gas-guzzling cars and fuel-dependent airplanes don’t have a lot of credibility.

Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes told me that a lot of the stars speaking out seem to be trying to seek attention for personal career reasons. About Neil Young’s remarks, he said: “I’ll still continue to listen to Neil Young’s music, but not much else as he seeks to rehabilitate his non-existent profile.”

As strategies go, trying to diminish or slough off the impact of celebrity activism is a poor one. Mr. Redford isn’t just any old actor. He has environmental cred (he wrote an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail about the oil sands in 2011) and is a friend and supporter of U.S. President Barack Obama. His one-minute video could eventually be viewed by millions of Americans.

And Mr. Redford is the least of Alberta’s problems, at least compared to Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who is leading a well-financed campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. Mr. Steyer is pouring more than $1-million into new attack ads that rely on the base techniques inherent in these types of campaigns. In other words, they don’t let the facts get in the way of making their point: that the oil sands will cause the end of civilization as we know it.

In the same way that Mr. Redford is no commonplace actor, Mr. Steyer is no regular billionaire. He’s entertained the U.S. President at his home and been a major fundraiser for him. If Keystone doesn’t go ahead, many believe Mr. Steyer will have been largely responsible for its defeat.

In the high-stakes oil-sands debate, Alberta’s defenders look like pikers. The province doesn’t have an answer for the Robert Redford and Tom Steyers of the world. The best politicians and oil industry executives here can do is stomp their feet and call their opponents hypocrites. When it comes to using star power to counter its Hollywood critics, Alberta’s answer is to offer up Ezra Levant of Sun News TV.

It’s not a fair fight.

Alberta needs to get its act together. If the oil sands are no longer the greenhouse-gas-emitting monster they’re being made out to be, then the province and the oil industry need to get that message out with a high-profile, well-financed initiative of their own. But it needs to be a crusade of some significance, one that engages Canadians across the country as well as our neighbours to the south. Anything less would be a waste of time.

Right now, it looks like Alberta doesn’t quite know what to do. It’s getting walloped from all sides and doesn’t seem up for the fight. At this rate, someone will soon have to step in and call the bout over for the sake of the poor province. It’s getting pummelled.

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