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Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, middle, and LyondellBasell Senior Vice President Kevin Brown, right, greet refinery workers before a press conference on Wednesday March 6, 2013 at the LyondellBasell Refinery in Houston.

Patric Schneider/AP

Politics Insider delivers premium analysis and access to Canada's policymakers and politicians. Visit the Politics Insider homepage for insight available only to subscribers.

You know you have an uphill climb in your communications mission when you feel the need to state that your nation's leading export industry is not going to end life on earth as we know it.

Yet Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver took the opportunity at a major global energy conference here to state that, contrary to what some would have us believe, Canada's planned oil sands expansion "is not going to destroy the planet."

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Armed with the generally favourable State Department environmental impact assessment, Mr. Oliver embarked this week on a trip to win American hearts and minds over to the benefits of the Keystone XL pipeline.

To do so, he sought to change the casting in the modern morality play that passes for climate debate – which environmentalists portray as 21st-century Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings taking on the dark forces of the fossil-fuel industry and an oil-soaked government.

Rather, Mr. Oliver claimed a leadership role for Ottawa, an argument that would have more credibility if it was supported by evidence of aggressive action.

His sales pitch was well received here in America's oil capital, where a chocolate cowboy graces the lobby of the Hilton Hotel. Gulf Coast refiners have invested billions of dollars into equipment to process Canadian-type heavy oil and are now eagerly awaiting pipeline connections to Alberta.

Mr. Oliver insisted Canada is serious about battling climate change – or at least as serious as President Barack Obama, and more serious than our competitors in the U.S. oil market like Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. So as one Canadian oil industry executive moaned this week – conjuring an image of Christ-like persecution – the oil sands should not be made to take on the climate sins of the world.

But the natural resources minister might be better off simply relying on the key State Department conclusion that the fate of one pipeline – including the Keystone XL – will not make or break oil sands expansion plans. And that, therefore, the decision on the pipeline will have little consequence for global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Harper government can point to some measures taken on climate, vehicle standards done in concert with the Obama administration, and coal regulations that will have real impact well after 2020. But its actions have been slow and grudging; its international stance, undiplomatic, and its domestic position combative against those who see climate change as the most critical challenge of our generation.

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The Conservatives have focused their political rhetoric on the threat posed to resource development by those urging carbon constraints, rather than the threat to the climate from unconstrained fossil fuel production and consumption.

In a speech at the CeraWEEK conference that received national coverage in the U.S., Mr. Oliver offered his audience "facts and science" in contrast to the "misrepresentations and hyperbole" of the environmentalists.

But facts and science can be cited selectively.

One of Mr. Oliver's favourite statistics is that the oil sands currently produce just one-thousandth of global emissions, a figure that hardly suggests the industry is a planetary threat.

But he neglects some other facts: that Canada, which is among the world's richest countries, is also one of the highest per capita producers of GHGs. Or that Environment Canada forecasts oil sands emissions will triple between 2005 and 2020, a trend that, according to the now-defunct National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy, will make it impossible to meet Canada's international climate commitments.

The release of draft regulations for the oil and gas sector later this year will be an opportunity for the Harper government to show real leadership on climate change. Regulations that don't drive real improvement will be seen as mere political scenery.

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Shawn McCarthy covers energy and the environment from The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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