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The Keystone oil pipeline under construction in North Dakota.


As more than twenty thousand activists prepare to converge in front of the White House this weekend to oppose Keystone XL, the Harper government plans to use a two-track message to persuade the U.S. government to approve the pipeline.

It will claim to be as serious about battling climate change as President Barack Obama, and will stress the national security and economic benefits that would result from the project's construction.

But it will be an uphill sell as Ottawa has continued to delay introduction of long-promised regulations that would rein in emissions from the oil sands, which American environmentalists have targeted as "dirty oil."

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Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said Sunday he is committed to persuading the American public that Canada is serious about fighting climate change.

"There are people [in the U.S.] who want to be reassured that we're not cavalier about the environment," Mr. Oliver said in an interview with The Globe.

"One important point is to show that we're moving in lockstep with the United States on a number of critical issues."

Mr. Obama raised alarms in Ottawa and in Alberta about the fate of the pipeline when he pledged in his inauguration speech to aggressively tackle climate change, and then appointed as secretary of state Senator John Kerry – a known climate hawk – to oversee the approval process. Pipeline proponents will be watching closely Tuesday night when Mr. Obama lays out his agenda in the State of the Union address, looking for hints as to whether his climate activism leaves room for more imported bitumen from Canada.

Mr. Oliver will likely travel to Washington once Mr. Obama has a new energy secretary in place. Mr. Oliver will make the case that Canada's climate policies are consistent with Mr. Obama's approach, echoing Foreign Minister John Baird who visited Mr. Kerry in Washington last week. Both governments have committed under the 2009 Copenhagen accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. And Ottawa has moved in tandem with Washington to impose increasingly tough fuel-efficiency standards over the next decade, while passing regulations to phase out traditional coal-fired power plants (though that measure will have little impact before 2020).

Canadian cabinet ministers have said that climate concerns should not derail the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver 850,000 barrels of bitumen to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The lack of pipeline capacity is exacting an economic toll on Alberta by driving down the price that producers get for their oil. The province is anticipating a $6-billion drop in revenues as a result, and federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Ottawa also expects its revenues to be weaker as a result of the industry's problems.

U.S. environmentalists say the pipeline decision represents the first real test of Mr. Obama's willingness to back up his words with action. While a more aggressive environmental leadership in Canada would give Mr. Obama some political cover if he approves the Keystone XL pipeline, the most vocal critics will only be satisfied with outright rejection of any new pipeline bringing bitumen from Alberta to the United States.

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"Tarsands can't come out of the ground. We can't solve climate destruction if we take that oil out," said Eddie Scher, a spokesman for the U.S.-based Sierra Club, which is one of the organizers of the anti-pipeline demonstration. For the first time in its history, the Sierra Club has approved the use of non-violent civil disobedience to oppose the project, and organizers are already planning actions that will lead to arrests.

The Harper government rejects the environmentalists' claim that the oil sands represent a global "carbon bomb" that, if developed according to industry plans, would doom efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change. In 2010, the emissions from the sector represented 0.01 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – that figure will climb significantly if the industry succeeds in tripling production without new ways of reducing the release of carbon dioxide.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has repeatedly delayed the introduction of promised greenhouse gas regulations for the sector, which he describes as "world class." Critics fear the regulations, when they do arrive, will match Alberta's current rules, which have done relatively little to curb emissions.

New Democratic Party Natural Resources critic Peter Julian said the Harper government has become an international laggard on the climate-change file, and has no credibility when it promises to reduce emissions. Mr. Julian said that failure is undermining the very industry Ottawa is keen to promote.

In Calgary on Saturday, former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice said expanding market access for Alberta's oil is the "most important economic issue" facing Canada.

He said that under the Obama administration in the U.S., there is a growing disconnect between the countries on the energy file, and noted that the U.S. is looking to diversify its energy supplies, rather than relying solely on Canada.

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