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Politics Awed by oil sands, Mulcair calls for more environmental oversight

Flanked by Edmonton MP Linda Duncan, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair holds a news conference at the Alberta Legislature on May 31, 2012.

DAN RIEDLHUBER/Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters

Precisely one thing surprised Thomas Mulcair on his visit to Alberta: the scale of the oil sands.

During his first visit, including a helicopter flight over several oil sands mines, to a region he has criticized, Mr. Mulcair was overwhelmed by the "awe-inspiring" display.

He stopped short, however, of calling the mines dirty.

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"These are extraordinary undertakings on a human scale. I mean, they're massive," Mr. Mulcair said. "It's extraordinarily impressive, but it also brings with it real challenges. Real challenges that if we don't assume in this generation, we're going to bear in future generations."

Mr. Mulcair was more statesman than firebrand in his whirlwind tour of Edmonton and Fort McMurray, which began late Wednesday and concluded on Thursday afternoon. He'd visited Alberta before, but never the oil sands, and not as party leader.

He sidestepped attacks and toned down his language – in particular, referring to the "oil sands," and not the "tar sands," a term he had often used, but which carries a negative connotation in the West.

"They're bitumen sands, because the chemicals are neither oil nor tar. But if removing that linguistic impediment can make the conversation easier, I'm not going to keep it in place intentionally," Mr. Mulcair said.

He nonetheless stuck to his arguments, which he has repeated often but only this month erupted into a war of words with western premiers. Environmental oversight of the oil sands is subpar, he said, and the federal government should enforce its laws. "They're not even interested in doing the right thing on the environment."

Cracking down would force polluters to pay and clean up their act, rather than getting a "bit of a free ride in terms of using the air, the soil or the water," he said. He repeated his calls for a cap-and-trade limit on carbon pollution.

Mr. Mulcair also repeated his belief that Canada suffers, in part, from a phenomenon known as Dutch disease – as the energy sector drives up the dollar, other industries suffer, including manufacturing. Two major reports have at least partly agreed with his contention; another, released this week, disputed it.

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Finally, the NDP Leader said Canada should upgrade and refine oil sands bitumen rather than exporting it raw.

All told, he stuck to traditional party fare – meeting with labour leaders and echoing statements from the provincial NDP or his lone Alberta MP, Linda Duncan.

Although that didn't mean he wasn't under fire.

Asked whether Mr. Mulcair had any valid points, Alberta Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk replied: "No, his understanding of our economic impact on the rest of the country is somewhat surprising." Alberta's own Opposition Leader, Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Party, called Mr. Mulcair "very dangerous for Alberta."

Largely, though, civility reigned during his visit. His oil sands tour guide, and the local mayor, avoided being drawn into the partisan fray.

"In my opinion, it was a productive discussion," Mark Little, Suncor's executive vice-president of oil sands, said in a written statement. "We outlined some of the challenges we face and discussed Suncor's approach to responsibly develop this resource in a manner that also respects communities and stakeholders."

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Melissa Blake, mayor of the local Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, met with Mr. Mulcair and agreed on the need for robust environmental monitoring. "Nobody in the province is disagreeing with that," she said, but disputed the notion that oil sands are hurting the Canadian economy by driving up the dollar.

"I don't see that we're the ones responsible for taking a bunch of Canadian jobs away," she said.

Mr. Mulcair had planned to visit Alberta in June; he bumped it up to this week at the request of provincial NDP Leader Brian Mason, who applauded the visit. "I hope this is the start of a more rational dialogue," he said.

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