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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 ...

The Obama administration's decision this week to impose a further delay in approving TransCanada Corp.'s $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline project brought howls of outrage from Republicans and the oil industry, and “profound disappointment” from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The State Department did invite the company to reapply when it has completed the rerouting of the pipeline around the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region in Nebraska – essentially punting the final decision until after next November's elections.

Stung, the Harper government has lashed out at foreign environmental groups, characterizing them as “radicals” and “jet-setting celebrities” fuelling pipeline controversies in Canada. Federal regulators are now holding a public review of Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline, and the government has warned that foreign groups are financing delaying tactics to undermine the development in the oil sands.

The Harper government itself has actively lobbied in state, federal and European capitals to oppose policies that it views as detrimental to Canadian oil. Yet it has good reason to worry about the globalization of the opposition. The stakes are enormous, and not only for the Prime Minister's home province.

Oil is now Canada's largest export by far, and the country ranks third in total crude reserves behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Meanwhile critics worry that the oil boom is transforming the country into something of a petro state, driving the loonie higher at the expense of Central Canadian manufacturing.

In the U.S., activists have targeted fossil-fuel production and use, with campaigns against coal, oil and the controversial “fracking” extraction of shale gas. But oil is the most politically divisive.

U.S. groups such as the NRDC have been active in Canada, and foreign foundations have funnelled money to Canadian environmental groups and activists, in some cases specifically to organize opposition to the Gateway pipeline through B.C.

Even in Europe, the Canadian government is battling an effort within the European Parliament – backed by well-organized activists – to pass low-carbon fuel regulations that would rate oil-sands crude as the world's worst from the standpoint of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet the environmental community is simply following the pattern of the international oil industry, which seeks to influence policy wherever it has operations. And they are also following a known script for global campaigns, whether to save the Brazilian rain forest, to protect tiger habitats in Asia or, indeed, to halt logging in British Columbia's Clayoquot Sound.

Canadian oil producers are now finding they have to respond to the heightened international campaign against them, said David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, speaking from Washington, where he was meeting U.S. colleagues, Canadian embassy staff and analysts to assess the political climate for Canadian oil exports in the 2012 election year.

“It's a global business, and it's hard to draw boxes around these things,” he said. “Ultimately, it is for Canadians to decide whether those voices are relevant to the debate or not.”

Who's winning?

International groups have seized on the Alberta development as a potent symbol in the much bigger fight over climate change. Mr. Collyer argued that the groups have been acting out of fear, trying to win a battle to show that they are not losing the war.

Since the optimistic days of the Green Group summit, the U.S. Senate has failed to pass climate legislation, Mr. Obama has proved disappointing on emission regulations and international climate talks have faltered.

In turn, the environmental campaign has provoked a public-relations response in Canada: the founding of EthicalOil.org, a group with close ties to the Harper government and the industry. The group has been highly critical of the foreign groups that have financed campaigns in Canada.

“These groups unfairly target Canada and our oil sands because it's an easy, risk-free target for them,” EthicalOil spokeswoman Kathryn Marshall said.

But Rick Smith, executive director of Toronto-based Environmental Defence and an attendee at the 2009 Green Group summit, said the Canadian activists sought out the support of U.S. colleagues to help even the playing field against the hugely powerful oil industry.

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