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Alberta politicians defend oil sands after Syncrude found guilty in duck deaths

An image shown in a court case over the death of more than 1,000 ducks caught in a Syncrude tailings pond.

Todd Powell/Alberta Government

Days after a landmark guilty verdict against oil sands giant Syncrude Canada Ltd. over the deaths of 1,600 ducks, a pair of Alberta government cabinet ministers are circling the wagons to defend the province's oil industry.

In speeches thousands of kilometres apart, the veteran ministers lashed out this week against the high-profile trial and the international attention it garnered.

Energy Minister Ron Liepert told a Reuters reporter in Qatar that there are "bigger issues" than the "highly over-publicized" duck trial, while back in Canada, Infrastructure Minister Ray Danyluk said "Alberta is under attack," adding Syncrude was "the goat" of a trial and the incident "wasn't their fault, you know, per se."

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With the case still ongoing, opposition politicians suggested the ministers' comments are part of a scheme to counteract the politically charged court images of ducks covered in thick bitumen.

"This is clearly a co-ordinated public affairs bureau response to this, to try and minimize the responsibility of the two parties that are involved - the government and Syncrude," Liberal environment critic Laurie Blakeman said.

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith said she, like the government, remains an oil sands supporter, but acknowledged the duck deaths were a "black eye" for Alberta.

"We can't pretend it doesn't matter. It does matter," Ms. Smith said. "The message to the world is: 'Yes, we're going to continue to develop this resource. Yes, we're going to continue to improve environmental performance.' You don't play down or try to shrug off real problems, because that's not going to fly."

On June 25, Syncrude was found guilty of a pair of charges - one federal, one provincial. The judge found that Syncrude did not deploy cannons and effigies, meant to scare wildlife away, quickly enough, before the dead birds were discovered on April 28, 2008.

The company is arguing the charges overlap. The provincial charge carries a fine of up to $500,000. The federal charge allows a fine up to $300,000, but allows the chance to seek a fine for each duck that died. Both sides will be back in court Aug. 20.

It was in a meeting in his hometown riding of Lac La Biche, Alta., that Mr. Danyluk made his comments.

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"Alberta is under attack, and Alberta will continue to be under attack, because Alberta is a main player," Mr. Danyluk said. "We have to present the best image that we can. And I think from the duck incident, we all learned a lot. And all of Alberta learned. And unfortunately Syncrude was the goat on that one. And it's nothing that, uh, it wasn't their fault, you know, per se. But we all hold responsibility whether it be Syncrude or whether it be the government or whether it be the people of Alberta."

Syncrude spokeswoman Cheryl Robb then piped up from across the room, saying the duck deaths were "a mistake, and something we deeply regret," and later asking the outspoken minister: "You know there's media here, right?"

Mr. Danyluk defended the government's record and said it is committed to environmental protection in the oil sands.

For his part, Mr. Liepert attacked the coverage of the trial, lamenting "a global campaign by special interest groups" and saying he will fight back with oil sands-friendly messages internationally.

The lucrative oil sands hold an estimated 175 billion barrels of crude, the largest source outside the Middle East, but it's stuck in thick bitumen. The heavy-duty separation process is frequently criticized by environmental groups.

Asked whether the ministers were speaking for government or on their own, Alberta government spokesman Cam Hantiuk said "you're probably seeing a combination of both."

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Simon Dyer, oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute environmental think tank, said the Syncrude trial facts "were pretty clear" and government needs to move on stricter environmental regulations.

"We still have a long way to go to acknowledge the problems Alberta has," he said.

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