“Canadian environmentalists were working on these issues long before we saw any greenbacks,” Mr. Smith said. “It was really the aggressive expansion of the tar sands themselves that has made this into a continental issue and an international issue.”
Canadian officials play down the climate impacts, saying the oil sands represent only 5 per cent of total emissions in Canada and that this country accounts for only 2 per cent of global emissions. But critics say the country's per-capita emissions are among the highest in the world, and Ottawa will not be able to reduce them if oil-sands production grows as expected.
Shortly after the Airlie meeting, the NRDC's Ms. Beinecke visited Fort McMurray, Alta., along with Margie Alt, president of Environment America, a green umbrella group. Both women say they were awed by the sheer scale of the bitumen mines run by Suncor Energy and Syncrude.
“Clearly the overriding concern of the environmental community globally is climate change,” she said. “And it really doesn't matter where it comes from or where you burn it.”
But she said it is wrong to assume that the NRDC has an inordinate focus on Alberta's oil producers. The sprawling environmental charity – with a annual budget of $100-million (U.S.) – has offices across the United States and one in Beijing. It works on the full range of environmental issues, including coal mining, shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, renewable energy and clean oceans.
But Ottawa and Alberta can expect environmentalists across borders to keep up the pressure, whether on a Keystone revival, the Gateway project or any future proposal. Having gotten nowhere persuading governments to rein in oil-sands growth in the first place, they will keep looking to block the infrastructure it takes to get the oil to market.
Shawn McCarthy is the Globe and Mail's global energy reporter.