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Heavy haulers ply the dirt caked roads at the Syncrude's Mildred Lake oil sands operations north of Fort McMurray , Alberta. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Heavy haulers ply the dirt caked roads at the Syncrude's Mildred Lake oil sands operations north of Fort McMurray , Alberta. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Alberta group makes case for oil sands Add to ...

A group of high-powered Alberta business leaders is in Ottawa this week on what they are calling a "a trade mission to the capital of our own country."

Their goal: promote the oil sands as what John Ferguson, chairman of Suncor Energy Inc., calls a "great Canadian treasure." Alberta's bitumen is, they say, not a festering sore on Canada's environmental record, but instead a wellspring of great wealth and cutting-edge innovation that is helping to green Fort McMurray's "dirty oil."

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In meetings with senators, cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister, 50 Albertans are attempting to head off the global criticism that has descended upon their province in an attempt to establish trust with those policy makers who will one day write the greenhouse gas, tax and other rules that could potentially harm the oil sands.

They are arguing that the oil sands, contrary to popular belief, have a strong record on the environment, are critically important to the economic well-being of the country as a whole and don't deserve to face the brunt of greenhouse gas reduction policies.

They have come armed with facts. Last year alone, they say, the oil sands invested $30-billion in infrastructure, more than any government stimulus program in North America. In the next two decades, according to one estimate, companies will pour $218-billion into new oil sands projects, a tally that will cause a giant ripple across the country.

It isn't all going to Alberta. Last year, Suncor alone spent $401-million in Quebec and another $1.37-billion in Ontario, out a total of $4.2-billion spent on capital and exploration.

"A lot of places in Eastern Canada think the only real benefit [of the oil sands]is that their people go out and work in Fort McMurray and get jobs for a while. A lot of them don't realize the real economic benefit," Mr. Ferguson said. "The other factor is, they haven't been able to really understand the progress that we've been making on the environment."

Over the course of the week, the group plans to meet with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Minister of International Trade Peter Van Loan, Industry Minister Tony Clement and Environment Minister Jim Prentice. It also met with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and much of the Liberal caucus.

"The key message is that a strong Alberta is a strong Canada," said David Maclean, a vice-president with the Alberta Enterprise Group, which organized the delegation.

But although Mr. Maclean said the business leaders did not come with a specific "ask" - for either policy measures or funding - the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, which has accompanied the group, has petitioned Ottawa for a number of changes. Among them are an extension of the accelerated writeoffs for manufacturing investments, lower EI premiums for companies investing in new manufacturing or environmental technologies and tax credits for those who invest in workplace training.

Jay Meyers, president of the manufacturers association, also called on the government not to discriminate against the oil sands as it weighs future legislation. Industry has been especially concerned about the impact of new environmental rules, particularly regarding greenhouse gas emissions.

"The biggest challenge is to ensure that we don't tie ourselves up in regulations and policies that impede the progress that the industry is making," he said.

Environmental groups, however, questioned the good the oil sands have done for the country - and pointed to the difficulties they have created for Canada's bid to lower carbon emissions.

"There are some serious environmental challenges that the federal government needs to get involved in," said Simon Dyer, oil sands program director with the Pembina Institute.

But Mr. Ferguson argued that it's unfair to point the finger at the oil sands.

"The biggest culprit relating to emissions is the end user, the automobile," he said. "It's not in the production of the product."

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