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U.S. Speaker calls for cut in oil imports

Protesters gather on Parliament Hill to demonstrate against the Alberta oil sands ahead of a visit by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sept. 8, 2010.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Nancy Pelosi would like to see the United States buy less of what Canada is selling.

At a luncheon at the U.S. ambassador's Ottawa residence on Thursday, the powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives said she is committed to reducing her country's dependence on fossil fuels - and that includes Canadian crude oil and natural gas.

In a casual post-meal conversation with a group that included Laureen Harper, the wife of the Prime Minister, Ms. Pelosi remarked pointedly that she doesn't like any "fossil" and doesn't care whose it is or where it comes from.

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Canada is the largest source of imported fossil fuels into the United States.

In a statement Friday, Ms. Pelosi said that, in response to a question at the Thursday luncheon, she had "simply reiterated" the fact the House of Representatives has taken action to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and spur development of clean energy.

For the oil sands sector - which is battling a campaign by environmentalists to strangle its growth - Ms. Pelosi's trip came at a tough time. On a day when chief executives assured her of their determination to improve their environmental record, two of their number, Suncor Energy's Rick George and Enbridge Inc.'s Pat Daniel, were hit by embarrassing news.

Hours after the meeting, Suncor was charged by Alberta Environment with providing misleading information to the government about water runoff at a stalled oil sands construction site. The province alleges that Suncor unlawfully allowed dirt and water to leak from the site into the Athabasca River in May, 2008.

Then late in the day, Enbridge announced that it had closed a major oil pipeline in Illinois due to a leak, even as it continues to clean up a large spill that resulted from a pipeline break in Michigan this summer.

The news would appear to buttress claims from environmentalists and their allies in the U.S. Congress that the production and transportation of oil sands crude from Alberta is fraught with environmental hazards.

Ms. Pelosi arrived in Ottawa to attend a meeting of fellow Speakers from the G8 countries. But with Canada's oil sands having become a target for Democrats in Congress, she agreed to a series of meeting with federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice and three Canadian premiers; a group of environmentalists and native leaders, and senior energy industry executives. She also talked by phone with Prime Minister Harper.

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Though the politicians and industry executives were impressed with her openness, the environmentalists emerged from their 90-minute morning session to praise a politician they see as kindred spirit - one who remains committed to combating climate change by cutting Americans' consumption of crude oil, coal and natural gas. Canada is lobbying hard to have the U.S. State Department approve a new TransCanada Corp. pipeline that would expand the U.S. market for oil sands production.

Critics argue that planned development in the oil sands represents the world's largest single source of new greenhouse gases, though Canadian governments and industry insist they are working to reduce emissions.

Ms. Pelosi "made it very clear that for her, taking action on climate change was a major priority - it was important in terms of economic security, it was important in terms of national security," said Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, an umbrella organization for environmental, church and labour groups.

"She spoke very eloquently about the moral imperative for action on climate change in terms of how we owe it to future generations, and she spoke clearly about God's creation and the need to respect and honour that."

As the main customer, Mr. Saul said, the United States has an obligation to consider the environmental impact of oil sands production when it reviews proposals to build pipelines to expand imports of Canadian oil. That is particularly true, he said, when Canadian governments have failed to force the industry to limit greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution.

Ms. Pelosi was accompanied by Edward Markey, the Democratic chair of the House committee on energy independence and global warming. The two powerful Democrats told environmentalists that they are committed to reducing North America's reliance on fossil fuels, and the Canadian activists saw that as a clear signal that oil sands producers will have to reduce their environmental impact even as the U.S. government endeavours to reduce demand for their product.

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Native leaders from northern Alberta joined the environmentalists at their morning meeting in the monolithic U.S. embassy building, and Ms. Pelosi urged them to lead off the discussion with their views on the pollution and health impacts downstream from the massive oil projects.

Suncor's Mr. George said there was "goodwill" in the room when the executives met with the U.S. politicians. He said both share a common interest - a reliable, reasonably priced source of energy with an improving environmental record.

"We all have the same goals," said Mr. George, whose company is Canada's largest oil sands producer. "We all need cheap energy to make sure that we keep these economies moving ahead, and that we're in lock-step in terms of the need for continuous improvement on the environmental front."

Mr. George refused to comment on whether Ms. Pelosi had discussed with him the health and pollution concerns that had been raised by the first nations chiefs.

"I'm not going to get into 'he said, she said'," he said in a telephone interview. "That's not even appropriate for you to ask."

In informal conversation after the embassy luncheon, Ms. Pelosi was lobbied further. Ms. Harper told the Speaker that her brother works in Fort McMurray - home of Alberta's oil sands - and that companies are working hard to reduce their environmental impact. France Chrétien Desmarais, daughter of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, urged Ms. Pelosi to visit the oil sands - an invitation that had been extended by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach during a dinner meeting on Wednesday night.

Prior to Ms. Pelosi's trip to Ottawa, there had been talk that she might follow up with a visit to the oil sands, but her office says she has no plans to do so.

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About the Authors
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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