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Protesters are arrested as the Council of Canadians and Greenpeace Canada hold a rally featuring a civil disobedience sit-in against the tar sands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 26, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A global battle over the reputation of Alberta's oil sands is coming to a head. Ottawa is deploying heavy diplomatic guns, on both sides of the Atlantic, to the debate over whether it will be treated as an ethical source for a world that needs oil, or a polluting pariah.

Stephen Harper's chummy relationship with British Prime Minister David Cameron has begun to yield a friendlier view toward the oil sands, a potential influence in the fight over European standards that could label Alberta oil dirty.

In North America, meanwhile, public protests and diplomatic lobbying are intensifying over the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil sands bitumen deeper into the United States.

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Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, travelled Monday to meet the governor of Nebraska, where pipeline opponents are geared up for public meetings on Tuesday. In Ottawa, hundreds of activists converged on Parliament Hill for protests organized by environmentalists, unions and native leaders – before dozens climbed a barrier fence and were removed by police for trespassing.

While tactics shift, the debate has crystallized: Environmentalists argue that Alberta's oil sands require massive, high-emissions energy just to extract a resource that only heightens dependency on increasingly "dirty" oil, rather than greener fuels. The industry, and the Harper government, insist oil will be needed for decades to come and the oil sands are preferable as a source to "cleaner" crude oil from undemocratic, conflict-prone nations.

In Britain, where the former Labour government and its envoys in Ottawa issued stark warnings about the impact of oil-sands development on climate change, Mr. Cameron's Conservative government now argues the oil sands should not be singled out as a dirty source in a world that will need oil, and increasingly heavy crudes, for the foreseeable future.

The shift could have an impact on an important symbolic battle over the oil sands across the Atlantic, where the European Union is hammering out fuel standards that could be as a precedent for other jurisdictions.

In an interview following Mr. Cameron's visit to Ottawa last week, where he signalled close alignment with Mr. Harper, British High Commissioner to Ottawa Andrew Pocock said his country wants to encourage responsible development and mitigation of emissions, but knows the oil will be extracted.

"You have … a huge sovereign resource, the second or third-largest in the world, on the border of the largest consumer of oil on the planet. That resource is going to be exploited. Name me a country on earth that wouldn't do it," he said.

Although little of Alberta's oil goes to Europe, the Harper government and the Canadian industry have lobbied in Europe to prevent those standards, known as the Fuel Quality Directive, from labeling the oil sands as dirty oil and creating stiff barriers to its import – fearing a precedent.

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Mr. Pocock said no one claims that extracting oil from the oil sands does not use more energy than some other sources, but it's not the only high-emissions oil in the world – pointing to the process of flaring gas in oilfields in Russia and Nigeria as less than ideal.

"We don't think it's sensible to single out particular sources of hydrocarbons. We're talking about a spectrum here. The light oils on the planet are, broadly, gone. We're going to have to look at heavier crudes," he said.

It's not clear how much of an impact the British shift might have. But oil-sands advocates like Alykhan Velshi, a former Conservative staffer now running ethicaloil.org, insist it's an important symbolic battle. "At the end of the day, the world is going to continue to need oil for the next few decades at least, and of the available options, Canada is far better than Saudi Arabia or Venezuela," he said.

The battle over the Keystone XL, a 2,673-kilometre pipeline to transport some 700,000 barrels a day of oil-sands bitumen to Gulf Coast refineries, is one with more direct economic impact. And it has drawn opponents who argue it's a potential disaster for the world's climate and a threat to local lands and water sources. To them, it's not a choice between "ethical" or "conflict" oil sources. Activist Bill McKibben, at a White House protest last month, said burning the oil sands' carbon in a big way would be "game over for the climate."

Canada's diplomatic corps has made approval of the project a high priority. Mr. Doer travelled to Lincoln on Monday to meet with the state's governor, Dave Heineman, who has urged the State Department to reject Keystone XL.

In Nebraska, an anti-pipeline insurgency has gathered so much momentum that activists are contemplating a ballot initiative that would force the state to regulate pipelines. That could substantially delay the Keystone XL pipeline or even force it to shift routes. In the past two months, more than 1,200 people have been arrested during protests against Keystone XL at the White House.

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With reports from Shawn McCarthy and Gloria Galloway

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