Later this month, a massive off-road dump truck will be parked on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian Institution, an eye-popping sight that the Alberta government hopes will draw attention to the province's growing importance as an energy supplier to the United States.
The truck, a smaller version of the two-storey-high models used in the Athabasca oil sands, is part of a $3.8-million publicity push by Alberta in the U.S. capital, highlighted by the province's participation in the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival. The annual outdoor event sponsored by Washington's leading museum attracts up to a million people to savour folk cultures, crafts and foods from around the world.
But environmental groups are accusing the Alberta government of using its financial clout, backed by sponsors in the province's oil industry, to subvert the intent of the Folklife Festival and promote the oil-sands development while ignoring the ecological damage and impact on global climate change that the mining and oil-extraction processes entail.
"I was horrified when I heard about it," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, Canada director at the Natural Resources Defence Council, a U.S. environmental group with 1.2 million members. She accuses Alberta of abusing the Folklife Festival, which runs June 30 to July 11, by using it as a promotional tool for a controversial development.
Critics of the Smithsonian Institution say it's simply another example of the venerable government-run museum selling out to corporate interests.
"The Smithsonian has been completely for sale for several years now," said Gary Ruskin, co-founder of Commercial Alert, a watchdog group that has criticized the Smithsonian for being too beholden to commercial interests in its quest for funds. The museum recently stirred controversy when it announced it was restricting filmmakers' access to its archives as part of a commercial deal with Showtime Networks, a commercial TV operation.
"It's hard to figure how making global warming worse is part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival," Ruskin said of the Alberta oil-sands push.
Ruskin said that Alberta's presence at the museum was reminiscent of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History decision in 2002 allowing Phillips Petroleum to sponsor its museum guide, including a full-page ad lauding the virtues of drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The guide was retracted as a result of the controversy.
Murray Smith, the Alberta government's representative in Washington, said it was his idea to park the oil-sands truck on the Mall, which stretches from the U.S. Capitol to the Washington Monument.
"I've been the truck guy from day one," said Smith, a former Alberta energy minister. Asked who is responsible for the curatorial decisions for the Folklife Festival, Smith joked that "the Smithsonian is good enough at it to let us think that we are" in charge.
Smith sees the oil sands a perfect fit for the Folklife Festival, saying it reflects the province's way of life, in the same way ranching, dinosaurs and the Rockies are part of provincial life. Those themes will also be part of the Alberta theme.
"I can't think of anything more appropriate in today's world than a deposit of 175 million barrels of crude oil," continued Smith. "Because Alberta is known for its resource base, it's entirely appropriate that we reflect on how people work; that people live in these two-storey trucks 24 hours a day and deliver 450 tons of sand soaked in bitumen every two minutes, 20 seconds, to a dump."
"It's truly an ethnographic festival. It's a really a huge way to highlight a culture," said Nancy Groce, curator of the Alberta program at the Smithsonian, which is pitching in $1-million of its money to the program. Besides Alberta, this year's themes include native American basket-weaving and Latino music from Chicago.
Groce insists that the oil-sands theme has nothing to do with promoting Alberta's oil industry.
"The truck is not here as a truck. The truck is to highlight the oil-sands workers who are coming. This is not an ad for the oil industry nor is it an ad for the maker of the truck. It's about the impact that that industry is having on the workers and the people of Alberta," Groce said.
"We are getting no direct money from the oil companies," she continued. "What we are getting from the oil companies is that they're releasing and paying salaries for some of their workers and that includes heavy-duty mechanics, truck drivers and people in charge of reclamation." She said that the oil companies initially simply wanted to send representatives of their PR departments, but the museum staff resisted the idea.
Groce also praises the Caterpillar Co., which she says "has been kind enough to loan us the truck" and is paying the costs of transferring the behemoth from the assembly line in Illinois to the mall. When the festival is done, the truck is being sent to a quarry in Virginia.
Although Alberta is paying the bill, the province has arranged sponsorships from oil companies including EnCana, Suncor, Conoco Phillips and Petro-Canada to help defray the cost of the extravaganza. Aside from the Folklife Festival, Alberta is sponsoring forums on technology, energy and agriculture, a gala with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, a reception involving Alberta universities and a Canada Day pancake breakfast.
Most of Alberta's delegation is focused on traditional crafts and folk arts. There will be a saddle-maker from Millarville, a Métis sash-maker from Edmonton, a Ukrainian cook from Vegreville and a range of musical and dance groups.
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, the environmentalist, is particularly upset that environmental critics of the oil-sands development have been notably excluded from the official list of participants.
Marlo Reynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, which has been critical of the environmental impact of the oil sands, said the group will attend the event in any case. "It will be our objective to ensure that the entire story of the oil sands is told," including the impact on climate change, the effects on wildlife and the legacy issues relating to the tailings pond from the oil-extraction process, he said.
Alberta's representative, Murray Smith, denies the environmentalists' allegations that the oil sands are a danger to the environment. "The oil sands are being reclaimed as they're being mined. Today there's a buffalo herd on a former mine site that has a 99-per-cent successful calving rate."
But Casey-Lefkowitz said that the exhibit's focus on the oil sands could end up backfiring against the Alberta government.
"Right now, Americans who think about Alberta think about Banff and Jasper. They think about skiing and about beautiful natural areas," she said. "This will make them think about Alberta as a destructive environmental disaster. It will make them think about Alberta as an area the size of Florida that's going to be ripped up."