Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a stark case for the Keystone XL pipeline to an influential New York audience, saying no further debate is necessary and an increasing supply of oil from Canada is inevitable.
"This absolutely needs to go ahead," Mr. Harper said during a packed session at the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan. "All the facts are overwhelmingly on the side of approval."
The only "real immediate environmental issue here," he added, "is do we want to increase the flow of oil from Canada via pipeline or via rail."
Mr. Harper's trip marks a new tactic in an all-out effort by the Canadian government to counteract the project's opponents and ensure that the pipeline moves forward. The push includes an ad campaign launched this week and rotating visits to the U.S. by a parade of cabinet ministers.
On Thursday, however, Mr. Harper did the selling himself.
His destination is a stronghold of Democratic voters, some of whom oppose the Keystone project.
But New York is also the nation's business capital, something Mr. Harper embraced. At the public event on Thursday afternoon, his audience included corporate executives, investors and academics. He also participated in a private breakfast and intimate afternoon roundtable with selected business chieftains.
He noted that the Keystone pipeline, a project of TransCanada Corp., could create 40,000 U.S. jobs. Given the current challenging climate for job creation, he said, "I don't think … we can afford to turn up our noses at that."
Ottawa considers the pipeline a crucial conduit for moving oil from Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. But the proposal has met with stiff opposition from critics who say it will accelerate climate change by making it easier to develop Alberta's reserves of carbon-laden oil.
Mr. Harper rejected those arguments. "Yes, there still are emissions issues, but no more so than heavy crudes in other parts of the world," he said. "This is an enormous benefit to the United States in terms of long-term energy security."
The Prime Minister also alluded to the tactics of those who oppose the project – including a number of vocal protesters just outside Thursday's event – following a question about how to combat climate change.
"It is not just a matter of getting on a street corner and yelling and that will somehow lead to a solution," Mr. Harper said. "These are real challenges where environmental needs intersect and often appear to be at cross purposes with economic and social development. Unless we realize that and take those things seriously, we're going to keep talking around the real issue."
During the hour-long session, Mr. Harper touched on a wide range of topics, from the development of the oil sands to foreign investment in Canada to the ongoing conflict in Syria. He urged U.S. President Barack Obama to exercise "extraordinary caution in jumping into" the situation in Syria. "Arming unnamed people whose identities we do not know and whose objectives we do not understand, I think is extremely risky."
Mr. Harper shared the stage with Robert Rubin, a former U.S. treasury secretary, who helped lead the discussion. The Prime Minister took questions from the audience but not from the media. He did not address the ethical controversy raging at home over a $90,000 payment by his chief of staff to cover improper expenses incurred by Conservative Senator Mike Duffy.
Following the event, Mr. Harper participated in an economic roundtable with a select group of six U.S. business leaders, including David Cote, the chief executive of Honeywell International Inc., Michael Evans, the vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Thomas O'Malley, chairman of oil refiner PBF Energy. One of the participants, Louis Chênevert, chief executive of United Technologies Corp., described it as a "great session."
Mr. Harper's visit also provided an opening for Keystone's critics. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, said there is a "deep contradiction between Canada's plans for the development of the oil sands and the climate reality we are facing around the world." Prof. Homer-Dixon joined with prominent scientists in sending a letter to Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass in hopes of generating some critical debate during Mr. Harper's appearance.
Across the street from the event, about 50 protesters awaited Mr. Harper's arrival, chanting and carrying signs that read, "Tar Sands Oil is Dirty Energy" and "End the Murder of our Planet."
"I have a daughter and I care about her living on a beautiful planet," said Elizabeth Kelley, 48, an activist who lives in New York. "I know what tar sands oil is and how terrible it is. I also know that climate change is real."
Faced with a blitz by Ottawa that includes an advertising campaign in Washington, opponents of Keystone have fired back, unveiling a website – oilsandsrealitycheck.com – and social media campaign that, they say, provide a reality check on the Harper's government's oil sands claims.
The loud and polarized public debate over the pipeline appears set to continue until Mr. Obama decides whether to approve it.
"The environmental community wants to keep up the pressure and the proponents don't want to be caught flatfooted like they have been before," said Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who recently published a book called The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future.
Once an obscure issue, the pipeline has turned into "one of the focal points – if not the focal point, of the American energy debate," Mr. Levi said. "It's an extraordinary change."
With report from Shawn McCarthy in Ottawa