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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is seen in a Feb. 8, 2013 file photo.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As he lands in New York on Thursday to promote Canada's energy agenda, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will face protesters bearing a banner with a simple message: "tar sands equal climate destruction."

The Prime Minister's visit – including an hour-long event at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations – is part of an aggressive lobbying campaign aimed at persuading President Barack Obama to approve the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline, which Ottawa sees an an important link from Alberta's oil fields to the massive refining hub on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Critics in the environmental movement and among climate scientists hope to blunt Mr. Harper's pro-development message with stark warnings that the world simply cannot afford to develop carbon-intensive fossil fuel reserves like those found in Alberta's oil sands. And demonstrators from 350.org – a U.S. climate action group – plan to meet him at the council's offices on Manhattan's Upper East Side to keep up the heat.

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During an hour-long discussion inside, Hr. Harper will stress Ottawa's action on the environment – including plans to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions in oil sands – as well as the economic and security benefits of Canada-U.S. energy trade.

"The government is committed to responsible resource development that is matching concrete action on the environment with economic development that will benefit all Canadians," Andrew MacDougall, director of communications in the Prime Minister's Office, said in an e-mail.

In a letter to Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass released Wednesday, prominent Canadian scientists rejected Ottawa's argument that the oil sands are being developed in an environmentally responsible fashion.

"The pace and scale of expansion of oil sands and a safe climate for all of us cannot co-exist," the letter said. "Unless the exploitation of the oil sands are brought under control, in a responsible manner, Canada and the world will have no hope of keeping global warming below the promised 2 degrees Celsius."

It was signed by John Stone, a physicist at Carleton University; Danny Harvey, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto; and Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor at the Balsillie School for International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont. Profs. Stone and Harvey are among the lead authors for the upcoming report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In an interview, Prof. Stone acknowledged that the development of the oil sands alone would not destroy the planet's climate. But he said it is part of an unsustainable reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"The oil sands – like the Keystone pipeline – have become somewhat iconic in debate about climate change," he said. "The tar sands on their own – like an energy project on its own – would be a small contribution [to the problem] .… But an aggressive advocacy of the tar sands and the pipeline is going in the opposite direction to meeting any serious effort to keep global temperatures down."

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In an advertising campaign launched this week, the Harper government notes Canada has committed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020 – equivalent to what the U.S. is pledging to achieve; that Alberta is the first North American jurisdiction with GHG regulations on the oil industry; and that Ottawa intends to impose its own regulations, which would make it one of the few suppliers of crude oil to the U.S. to have taken action to reduce emissions.

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