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A Seattle billboard urges would-be vistors to Alberta to rethink their plans. (The Canadian Press)
A Seattle billboard urges would-be vistors to Alberta to rethink their plans. (The Canadian Press)

Anti-oil-sands campaign tests Alberta's Steady Eddie Add to ...

Faced this month with advertisements attacking the oil sands, a U.S. Congress skeptical of a critical pipeline project and a legislature demanding action, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is a man under fire.

Most recently, he was left defending his province against billboards posted in four U.S. cities by a small American environmental group, Corporate Ethics International. The billboards urged travellers to avoid visiting Alberta altogether, comparing the oil sands to the BP oil spill.

The ads have prompted a strong backlash in the province, where talk-radio shows and local newspapers have revelled in picking apart the campaign's inaccuracies. While they fire back, they're urging Mr. Stelmach to do the same. Leaders of the opposition Liberals and Wildrose Alliance are meeting Monday to discuss bypassing the government and reacting on their own.

The outcry, however, is exactly what Corporate Ethics was aiming for.

"We hoped to provoke a discussion. We're happy to see the attention to it," said Kenny Bruno, a spokesman for the California-based group.

Yet a study released Monday also shows the international news coverage of such campaigns is minimal.

So how will the Alberta government, and Mr. Stelmach, respond?

The Premier, known as Steady Eddie, is treading carefully so far. Respond too strongly, and give "$5-million of free media" to the activists opposing his province, he says. But too light, and risk losing a public opinion war over the province's most lucrative industry, which also generates 4.6 per cent of Canada's carbon emissions.

"We'll look at all options. But you know, the [activists']goal here is to add fuel to the fire in your reaction. Sometimes your reaction actually supports their campaign," Mr. Stelmach said late last week. "We absolutely will fight back through promoting Alberta's story using accurate information."

The timing is critical. The province this weekend hosted the Pacific Northwest Economic Region summit, which wraps up Tuesday and brings Western Canadian and Northwestern American leaders together. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also under pressure to block a proposed pipeline that would carry Alberta oil sands bitumen to American refineries.

While former premier Ralph Klein might have chosen a more brazen response, Mr. Stelmach has played to his own quieter style, turning to letter-writing. They include a Washington Post ad, a nearly identical Politico.com editorial, and a public letter to Ms. Clinton.

"Ed Stelmach has been on the offensive of late," said Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at Edmonton's Grant MacEwan University. "His style, though not necessarily bombastic, has been very effective in getting the message out that the province is unfairly being targeted by environmental groups.

"I think this is actually an opportunity for him to score political points for himself if he manages to get the upper hand."

The billboards include some "totally inaccurate" claims, Mr. Stelmach said, such as the oil sands being double the size of England. The group immediately backpedalled on the claims last week. (Since oil sands development began 30 years ago, about 600 square kilometres of open pit mining has taken place - that's about a quarter of one per cent the size of England.)

How Mr. Stelmach continues his public oil sands defence may depend on what his political rivals - Wildrose's Danielle Smith and Liberal leader David Swann - choose to do.

"We're doing much better than our detractors would have us believe," said Ms. Smith, a fiery oil sands defender. "I don't think he [Mr. Stelmach]is saying it enough."

Despite the political pressure, one Alberta-based think tank is suggesting Mr. Stelmach just stay the course and dismiss the U.S. billboards. Although notorious in Canada, anti-oil sands messages don't historically receive extensive international media coverage, according to a report being released Monday by the Canada West Foundation.

The report, analyzing oil sands coverage from the past year, showed only 8 per cent of articles with a "negative" slant were written by traditional international media, largely American.

"I think sometimes we're exaggerating the impact we have on the international media," said Roger Gibbins, CWF president and CEO. "I don't imagine [this month's ads]will have a measurable impact. But it's just kind of a further attack on the province's reputation."

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