The oil sands have a new defender: freshly minted Environment Minister Peter Kent, who calls Canada's tarry resource an "ethical" source of energy that should take priority in the U.S over foreign producers with poor democratic track records.
He balked at naming rival overseas suppliers that should take a back seat to Canadian oil-sands petroleum, saying he didn't want to upset diplomatic relations.
But the minister's characterization of the oil sands as "ethical" embraces a notion advanced by Calgary author Ezra Levant. Mr. Levant, a onetime aide to Stockwell Day, has helped popularize the argument that oil-sands petroleum is ethically superior to petroleum produced by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran - all nations that also sell crude to the U.S. market or Asian markets. It's an attempt to beat back efforts by U.S. politicians and activists who want a boycott of Canada's oil sands owing to its greenhouse-gas-heavy extraction methods and ensuing environmental damage.
Mr. Kent's staunch support for the oil sands represents an even more unapologetic stand by the Harper government as it works to comply with the international fight against climate change and ensure U.S. legislators don't end up stymieing Canadian exports or investment in the sector.
The former TV anchor and foreign correspondent was promoted this week in the Harper cabinet to the hot-button Environment portfolio vacated when Jim Prentice quit politics in late 2010. John Baird filled the role briefly.
An environmental activist-led campaign against Canada's oil sands has somewhat blackened this country's reputation in the United States. Mr. Kent said he believes Canada needs to reassure the U.S. government and Americans that oil-sands oil is not the global-warming menace and environmental scourge that critics claim.
"It is a regulated product in an energy superpower democracy," the minister said in an interview Thursday. "The profits from this oil are not used in undemocratic or unethical ways. The proceeds are used to better society in the great Canadian democracy. The wealth generated is shared with Canadians, with investors."
Building on this theme later Thursday, Mr. Kent told CBC's Power & Politics the Obama administration needs to be reminded that, unlike the energy it buys from other foreign suppliers, oil-sands petroleum "is the product of a natural resource whose revenues don't go to fund terrorism."
His "ethical oil" marketing strategy is similar to the argument advanced by "fair trade" food companies that market their goods as meeting higher environmental or social standards, such as more generous wages for farmers.
Mr. Kent said he sees part of his new job as setting the record straight on the oil sands - a sector he says has gotten a "bad rap."
"[It's]communicating, trying to encourage any discussion with skeptics, if not cynics, that let's deal with facts," he said of his new post.
"Oil-sands production accounts, I think, for 5 per cent of Canada's total greenhouse-gas emissions. It's less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and barely 1 per cent of the equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions by American coal-fired power generators," he said. "When you look at relevant measurements, it is not nearly the product that has been demonized."
Mr. Kent said his work history has prepared him for the tension between oil-industry development and environmental protection, noting he was briefly employed in the Calgary oil patch in the 1960s as a purchasing agent for an oil and gas supply company, Travis Mud & Chemical.
As a journalist in the 1970s, he travelled up and down the Northwest Territories' Mackenzie Valley with Justice Tom Berger, who led an inquiry into whether to build a massive natural-gas pipeline through the region. Mr. Berger's report recommended a 10-year moratorium on development.
"It's a few decades old, but I have a feel for the sensibilities of the people, of the environment," Mr. Kent said.
His biggest task will be stick-handling the Harper government's efforts to demonstrate it's taking concrete action to fight climate change amid criticism from environmental activists who charge that the Tories have set far too modest goals.
Citing the tentative economic recovery, Mr. Kent said the Harper government will not impose any greenhouse-gas reductions on the oil patch that would discourage investment across the sector.
Canada, which has committed to roughly matching U.S. efforts on fighting climate change, is watching carefully as the Obama administration rolls out new emission rules for power plants and refineries. Mr. Kent said Canada will draw up its own emission standards for petroleum refineries - including oil-sands facilities - but added there's no schedule yet.
"Our focus for the next several years is going to continue to be on maintaining the economic recovery and we will do nothing in the short term which would unnecessarily compromise or threaten to compromise that recovery," Mr. Kent said. "It is not our intention to discourage development of one of our great natural resources. We know it can be developed responsibly."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said over the holidays it will propose emission-performance standards for new and existing fossil-fuel facilities this year, despite opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.
The proposed regulations - to take effect at the end of 2012 - would be in addition to EPA rules that took effect on Sunday that require all new plants or major expansions to get permits for emitting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases believed to cause climate change.
Canada's overall goal as laid out by the Harper government is to cut national greenhouse-gas emission levels 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.
The first specific emission-reduction regulations that Ottawa will announce will apply only to coal-fired power generators - a major source of greenhouse gases. These will take effect in 2015.
The Harper government is later planning to unveil emission-reduction rules for other so-called large emitters - including refiners - with a goal of achieving the same broad cuts as the United States. These, Mr. Kent said, will be drawn up "with a sensitivity to maintaining a competitive situation."
The coal-fired power plant regulations being planned by the Tories are not expected to have a big impact. They will apply only to new plants built after 2015 and old ones being refurbished. Emissions from coal plants have already been dropping largely because of the Ontario government's decision to phase out coal-powered electricity by 2014.
At the same time, greenhouse-gas emissions from oil and gas are rising rapidly.
The minister added that he plans to follow up a Conservative pledge to regulate pollutants by unveiling a proposal - "I hope some time this year" - for national air-quality standards based on a provincial agreement reached in 2010 by his predecessor. This would include rules for public reporting, modelling and monitoring air quality.