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Syncrude's oil sands plant north at Mildred Lake north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and

After labelling certain environmental and first nations groups as extremists and radicals, Canada's federal government, along with the country's top law enforcement and spy agencies, have set up a counterterrorism unit in Alberta in order to protect the province's natural resources and infrastructure.

The RCMP, which will lead the effort, would not say whether the team was assembled in response to specific threats, nor did it pinpoint which pieces of infrastructure it will focus on. However, Alberta hosts the vast majority of Canada's oil assets, which have attracted international criticism and suffered security breaches. The province also has an extensive pipeline network, as well as upgraders and refineries, which protesters also target. Pipelines, for example, have been bombed in British Columbia.

The Tories have long stressed the importance of Alberta's oil and gas to the entire Canadian economy, and are now taking measures to hinder critics' ability to speak at regulatory hearings and shore up financial support. By establishing a counter-terrorism team in Alberta, the government is further emphasizing the importance it places on the western province and the threats it believes the energy industry faces.

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Indeed, the federal government recently labelled some critics "radicals," while the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service believe protest groups like Greenpeace and other dissenters have the capability to attack critical infrastructure in Canada. Greenpeace insists it is committed to non-violent protest.

The new counterterrorism unit, with offices in Edmonton and Calgary, will be Canada's fifth so-called Integrated National Security Enforcement Team.

"Our government has made responsible, effective investments to fight terrorism and protect Canadians, including the creation of INSETs in major Canadian cities that are responsible for criminal investigations involving terrorist activities," Vic Toews, Canada's Public Safety Minister, said in a statement as the RCMP announced the new effort Wednesday.

Sergeant Greg Cox, a media relations officer for the RCMP in Ottawa, said there is "no indication that the threat level is higher" in Alberta. "However, as in any part of the country, we need to remain vigilant. The establishment of an INSET in Alberta ensures that we have the capacity to address these threats if they arise."

INSETs were established following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Alberta's INSET was "prompted by factors such as a growing population, a strong economy supported by the province's natural resources and the need to protect critical infrastructure," the RCMP said in its statement.

Public Safety Canada on its website says: "Critical infrastructure refers to processes, systems, facilities, technologies, networks, assets and services essential to the health, safety, security or economic well-being of Canadians and the effective functioning of government ... Disruptions of critical infrastructure could result in catastrophic loss of life, adverse economic effects and significant harm to public confidence."

Alberta hosts 400,000 kilometres of pipeline; more than 176,000 operating oil and gas wells; eight oil sands mines; five upgraders; and 250 in-situ oil extraction facilities, according to the Energy Resources Conservation Board. The ERCB does not tally refineries.

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This type of infrastructure is likely what the government had in mind when it established the new INSET, one expert said.

"It is very much in line with the trend of committing more and more national security and counter-terrorism resources without a corresponding basis in any kind of particular threats," Jeffrey Monaghan, a researcher with the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University, said. "I think this has to do with property crimes rather than threats to civilians. ... It really has to do with economic infrastructure."

The energy industry's critics have moved beyond banners and petitions. Protesters in 2009, for example, caused disruptions at Royal Dutch Shell PLC's upgrader project in Alberta, as well as halting activity at a Suncor Energy Inc. mine after intruding on the properties. Protesters have also bombed and threatened pipelines in Western Canada.

Alberta's new counterterrorism unit will be composed of specially trained members of the RCMP, Edmonton Police Services, Calgary Police Services, Canada Border Services Agency and CSIS, the Mounties said in a statement Wednesday. INSETs are already established in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

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