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A no swimming sign along the banks of the Gleniffer reservoir while a boom stretches out to contain a pipeline leak on the lake near Innisfail, Alta., Tuesday, June 12, 2012.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When he was a boy, Tom Siddon would go fishing with his dad on Alberta's Red Deer River – trying to catch pike, chub and pickerel. Today, as Plains Midstream Canada tries to clean as much as 480,000 litres of oil from the river after its Rangeland South pipeline ruptured last week, the former federal Fisheries minister hopes something good will come from the major spill.

"This spill in Alberta is going to cause Tories everywhere to think twice," Mr. Siddon said in an interview from his home in the Okanagan. He wants fellow conservatives to abandon their support for pumping more crude oil from Alberta to the B.C. coast.

Mr. Siddon, a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative government, studied engineering in Alberta in the 1960s, where the challenge of extracting fossil fuels from the oil sands was a focal point of his education. He served as Fisheries minister from 1985 to 1990, and although he took heat for imposing stiff quotas on the Eastern cod fishery, he also signed a deal to reduce water flows in the Nechako River to power an aluminum smelter.

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But Mr. Siddon has sided with environmentalists and first nations to take on Big Oil and the Harper government, joining the simmering debate over British Columbia's role in getting Alberta's oil sands to Asian markets.

On May 30, Mr. Siddon testified in Ottawa against Bill C-38 because of amendments to the Federal Fisheries Act, which he fears will lessen habitat protection. He's also joined with first nations on the B.C. coast as a member of the Canadians for the Great Bear, a group fighting to stop the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

"The fish are the canary in the coal mine," he said. "It's extremely important that we proceed with caution when we are building pipelines under or over a fish-bearing river."

The Enbridge project, together with the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan's TransMountain pipeline, would transport roughly 1.5 million barrels a day of Alberta crude across B.C. to the coast. That's roughly half of Canada's current oil production.

Mr. Siddon hopes to persuade B.C. Premier Christy Clark to take a stand against Enbridge, and he is using an economic argument tailored for the conservative politician: Canada should be processing its oil rather than shipping it in crude form to Asian markets.

"Here we are rushing to export gooey, sticky oil from the oil sands to make the quick dollar," he said. "We're exporting the jobs to China that we should be creating at home by having the refining capacity built in Alberta."

Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said Tuesday there is no market for boosting the refinery industry in Canada right now. "The economics are not there," he said in an interview.

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The cost of building new capacity to upgrade crude oil is higher than the additional price it would fetch as light oil, he said, while the business of refining light oil is in decline. "A new refinery has not been opened in North America in a quarter of a century," he noted.

Mr. Siddon maintained that that is where government needs to give industry a nudge. "We won't get the research dollars from the oil-and-gas industry if we just let them ship the stuff out to China or elsewhere and export the environmental problems that go with it."

In British Columbia, where the Clark government has yet to take a position on the Northern Gateway, Mr. Siddon has sought to reach out to the Premier, arguing she can play a critical role in blocking the pipeline. If the provincial government remains silent, however, he predicts "this could be the election killer" for her B.C. Liberal Party.

New Democratic Party Leader Adrian Dix said Mr. Siddon's involvement makes it harder to paint opponents of the pipeline with a partisan brush. "The idea this is a debate between those who support economic development and those who do not is wrong," he said. "The question for B.C. is, is it worth the risk?"

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