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U.S. Speaker Pelosi a willing listener in crucial oil-sands talks Add to ...

Fresh out of a lengthy dinner discussion about Canada's controversial oil sands with the third-most powerful politician in America, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach had a quick assessment of how it went: "Better than I thought."

The meeting of Mr. Stelmach, two other premiers and two federal cabinet ministers with Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, came at a critical time in the energy trading relationship between the two countries. Washington is considering approval of the massive cross-border Keystone XL pipeline project, while looming mid-term elections have placed Ms. Pelosi and the rest of President Barack Obama's Democrats under domestic pressure from environmentalists to reduce the country's dependence on the oil sands.

The premiers' session, which ran well over its scheduled time, was the first of three Ms. Pelosi has set up to learn about Canada's energy industry - most prominently the oil sands. The leaders discussed few specifics, but all praised the progress of the dinner meeting.

In an interview Wednesday night, Mr. Stelmach said that while he might have expected to be grilled by Ms. Pelosi, a bona fide environmentalist, she instead came to listen to his pitch about Alberta's oil sands and the province's efforts to mitigate carbon emissions. However, environmental critics - who will meet with the Speaker Thursday - claim such efforts fall well short of their goals, and Mr. Stelmach took the meeting after the release of two recent studies showing his government has under-reported both river pollution and bird deaths in the oil sands.

But Ms. Pelosi didn't ask about that.

"I thought that they might have pushed back on any of the information we imparted on the Speaker, but she said: 'Hey, I'm here to listen. We want to get both sides of the story,'" Mr. Stelmach told The Globe and Mail. "Boy, after today, I'm excited."

In a statement, Ms. Pelosi spoke in equally positive tones about the meeting.

"Tonight's discussion confirmed that the United States and Canada share a strong commitment to addressing climate change and energy security. We share much more than a border, and with respect to our energy future, we are in the same boat," she said. "Our discussion focused on more than the oil sands issue; we discussed the need for aggressive research and development on renewable energy and conservation technology. Our mutual clean energy goals will drive innovation and create millions of jobs on both sides of the border."

The meeting discussed Quebec's hydro-electric capacity, the United States' efforts to reduce its dependence on coal (much of which is bought from Saskatchewan), and Canadian innovations in the field of carbon capture and storage, an unproven but promising method to reduce the emissions footprint of oil sands development.

However, the sides dealt with few specifics. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall told The Globe and Mail there was "no specific signal on Keystone [the proposed pipeline]or generally on oil sands developing." Nevertheless, "it was a very engaging discussion and that's why it went as long as it did. And I think that also bodes well," Mr. Wall said.

The sides also loosely discussed developing a benchmark of what an acceptable carbon footprint for the lucrative industry might be - something the Alberta premier referred to as "certainty" about the industry's future.

"In order to get that certainty, both countries have to get together to work on the targets. Saskatchewan and Alberta said we'll meet those targets and exceed them," Mr. Stelmach told The Globe.

U.S. ambassador to Ottawa David Jacobson played host to the dinner at his Ottawa residence. It began at 7 p.m. local time and ended just before 10 p.m. One of his predecessors said a successful dinner may help counteract campaigns by environmentalists and win Washington's support for continued oil sands development.

"The arguments that have been made in the U.S. are either misrepresenting facts or flat out distorting facts," said Gordon Giffin, a former U.S. ambassador to Ottawa and current director of energy giant Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. "This will get her focused and she will hear straight from all interested parties in Canada. [It]will enhance the dialogue in the U.S. because the challenge is lack of information. And the more informed she is, the better the debate is."

The meeting was perhaps most crucial for Mr. Stelmach, whose province includes the vast majority of the oil sands and is largely the reason Canada has become the top supplier of oil to the United States, ahead of countries such as Saudi Arabia. Mr. Stelmach had never before met with the Speaker, though his province's economy relies squarely on U.S. energy consumers. In 2008, the U.S. bought $79.5-billion in energy from Alberta - a staggering 72 per cent of the province's total exports in all industries.

Both Mr. Stelmach and Mr. Wall said they urged Ms. Pelosi to consider the economic impacts when weighing calls from environmental groups to avoid the oil sands. The Speaker and Congressman Edward Markey, himself an outspoken environmentalist who also attended the dinner, received a letter from 26 environmental groups Wednesday urging them to reconsider "the very serious consequences of reliance on Canadian tar sands oil."

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