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‘Canadians should be outraged by these allegations,’ Cenovus CEO Brian Ferguson says about critics of the oil sands’ environmental record.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Two of Calgary's most prominent oil executives delivered a scathing rebuttal to celebrity critics such as rock star Neil Young, as the industry attempts to win support for pipeline projects that are essential to its ambitious growth plans for the oil sands.

Cenovus Energy Inc. chief executive Brian Ferguson and TransCanada Corp. chair Russ Girling brought an aggressive message to a joint presentation at Toronto's Canadian Club, in which they defended the country's current approach to environmental protection and resource development.

Their appearance came just three days after Mr. Young launched a cross-country "Honour the Treaties" concert tour with a press conference that slammed the oil-sands development as an environmental catastrophe, ruinous to the health of local populations and an abrogation of treaty commitments.

Without specifically mentioning the singer, Mr. Ferguson said celebrities have been "trash-talking" Canada's oil industry.

"In Hollywood, the land of make-believe, everything is black and white, good and evil," he said. "Hollywood stereotypes are unhelpful and, in many instances, just simply dead wrong."

More than just a slagging match, the battle between the oil industry and environmentalists could determine the pace of growth in the oil sands.

The oil sands sector is the largest construction site in the country but also the fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Cenovus's growth plan shows what is at stake as opponents target proposed pipelines to the U.S. Gulf Coast, to the West Coast in British Columbia and to the East Coast in New Brunswick. The company, with its partners, expects to produce 400,000 barrels per day of crude this year, and to increase that to 1 million barrels per day by 2023.

"If there were no more pipeline expansions, I would have to slow down," the Cenovus executive told The Globe and Mail's editorial board.

He said he remains optimistic that TransCanada and other pipeline companies can win public support for projects by demonstrating their safety and debunking what they characterize as misinformation from their critics.

Mr. Ferguson told the business audience that because of Canada's large oil production business, "special interest groups" have accused Canadians of being lax on the environment, with weak morals and soft laws.

"Canadians should be outraged by these allegations," he said.

But environmentalists say Mr. Young's message was right on target. "By going full speed ahead in the tar sands, we are failing to honour our treaties with First Nations and failing to honour the unwritten agreement to leave our kids a healthier planet than the one we inherited from our parents," Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart said Wednesday.

Mr. Girling said his company is trying to take a more pro-active stance in dealing with concerns over the $12-billion Energy East Pipeline, which would carry crude to Eastern Canada. Ontario will get 2,000 construction jobs, he said, as well as $10-billion in economic gains and $3-billion in new taxes, though the construction jobs are temporary and the benefits accrue over 40 years.

While the executives extolled the benefits and safety of pipelines, they also said rail will continue to be an important mode of transport, even if all pipelines are built.

Cenovus has leased 825 new rail cars, which will feature safety standards absent from much of the current rolling stock. The company will eventually be able to move up to 30,000 barrels a day by rail.

Still, Mr. Ferguson said rail is really just a complement to pipelines, which will move far more oil over the long term.

Mr. Girling said TransCanada will consider building a rail facility at Hardisty, Alberta – the terminal point for the Keystone XL Pipeline – if Keystone is not built. "If our customers want us to do that, we would put a rail terminal there," he said.

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