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Approximately a dozen protesters gather on Parliament Hill to demonstrate against the Alberta oil sands in Ottawa, Wednesday September 8, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Approximately a dozen protesters gather on Parliament Hill to demonstrate against the Alberta oil sands in Ottawa, Wednesday September 8, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The day the oil-sands battle went global Add to ...

It was the 2009 annual summer retreat of the Green Group – the chief executives, presidents and executive directors of the largest environmental organizations in the United States – and their Canadian counterparts had wrangled an invitation for the first time.

The U.S. environmental movement appeared to be on a roll, with a new ally in the White House, the House of Representatives on the verge of passing a climate bill, and guarded optimism about a breakthrough at the United Nations summit in Copenhagen later that year.

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That June, the green leaders gathered at the Airlie Center, a historic farmhouse turned conference centre an hour's drive from Washington, in rural Virginia. Billed as an “island of thought,” Airlie is a sylvan retreat for American progressives: It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. laid plans for the Poor People's Campaign and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson announced plans for the first national Earth Day.

For the Canadian eco-activists, the Airlie session had an equivalent significance, marking the moment when the broad and powerful U.S. environmental movement turned its focus – and well-financed campaign tactics – against Canada's booming oil sands.

The concerted attack that began there set the stage for this week's decision by the White House to reject a proposed oil-sands pipeline through the U.S. heartland.

Green groups on both sides of the border are vowing to keep up pressure on the Achilles heel of the Canadian oil industry – the multibillion-dollar pipelines needed to transport Canadian crude to markets in the U.S. and Asia. In doing so, the environmental groups are rushing headlong into a confrontation with the Conservative government, which is determined to get a pipeline built through British Columbia and has criticized foreign critics as troublesome “special interests” who have no business getting involved.

Indeed, the government wants to frame the issue in traditional economic nationalist terms, draping the oil sands in the maple leaf and shielding Canada's economic engine from costly interference from abroad. The reality is that the oil sands – and Canada's place on the world's energy map – are a global concern. And there are stakeholders on both sides of the debate well beyond our borders.

A light switches on

While the oil sands were not unknown to U.S. activists in the summer of 2009, the Americans attending the green summit were consumed with their own battles. But the Canadians arrived with a blunt message to look north: In Alberta’s oil sands, they warned, multinational companies were rapidly expanding production of a particularly nasty source of crude.

As 20 top U.S. environmentalists sat silently, Greenpeace Canada executive director Bruce Cox gave a presentation that spelled out the oil sands’ enormous impact and the surge in greenhouse-gas emissions that would accompany the massive expansion that was planned by the industry and endorsed by federal and provincial governments.

One graphic was particularly eye-catching: a map of existing and proposed pipelines, resembling a spider web spinning out from Alberta across the central United States, to carry oil-sands bitumen to U.S. refineries.

“It was a clarion call,” Mr. Cox said this week in an interview. “And we had a specific ask: ‘We want you to engage on this subject. We want you to put it on the radar.' ”

By all accounts, the Greenpeace session was a galvanizing moment. Groups like the influential Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) had campaigned against the oil sands for years, but now the top leadership was directly engaged, and other groups picked up the ball.

“The meeting with the Canadian groups really made a difference,” NRDC president Frances Beinecke, one of the attendees, said from her New York office. “It was a very important session for elevating our attention in the U.S. to this issue and the interrelationship between the two countries.”

In response to politicians and others who promote Canadian oil as an “ethical” alternative to imports from Islamic plutocracies and conflict regions, she said, “We want a cleaner energy future, and taking us from one addiction to another doesn't move us forward in that regard.”

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