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Joe Oliver, Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, Feb. 25, 2013.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver will make the Harper government's case for the Alberta oil sands in Europe this week. But before he can begin, he finds himself contending with inconveniently timed comments from Al Gore about Canada's climate-change record.

Mr. Oliver is none too happy about it.

"Well, he's off the mark," Mr. Oliver said in an interview Sunday, accusing the outspoken climate-change activist and former U.S. vice-president of making "wildly inaccurate and exaggerated comments."

In an interview published Saturday in The Globe and Mail, Mr. Gore said the oil-sands boom and pipeline debate "ultimately … hurts Canada."

He added that this country's "resource curse" has led to "damage to some extremely beautiful landscapes, not to mention the core issue of adding to the reckless spewing of pollution into the Earth's atmosphere as if it's an open sewer."

Canada's oil sands contain one of the world's largest proven oil reserves, but it is relatively energy intensive to extract.

Research firm IHS CERA has concluded production of oil-sands crude results in up to 12 per cent more emissions per barrel, from extraction to end use, than conventional crude oil.

That has put Canada in the crosshairs of environmentalists, particularly since the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives came to power.

The government is seen as far more sympathetic to the oil-based economy of Alberta, pulling out of the Kyoto accord in 2011 in favour of the non-binding Copenhagen accord.

Mr. Oliver himself drew criticism last month for citing the work of scientists who say climate-change fears have been exaggerated. He later backtracked.

Critics contend Ottawa's stand has led to more tangible risks for Canada, including a holdup in the approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline, which could provide a vital link between Alberta oil and U.S. refineries.

Meanwhile, European bureaucrats and politicians have sought to enact a "fuel quality directive" that would single out Alberta's oil sands as a dirtier source of oil for transport purposes than conventional crude and discourage European companies from using it. Canada exports little crude to the EU, but it is seen as a possible market if demand from the U.S. subsides.

"We have people who are not exactly promoting the cause of fighting climate change on the one hand," said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar. "On the other, they want to be selling our energy. Well, you can't have both."

The fuel quality directive has divided European political leaders. The EU Climate Commissioner was reported to have pushed the directive over the objection of Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger – with whom Mr. Oliver is meeting this week – and others two years ago. Federal and Alberta politicians were able to exploit this divide through intense lobbying, winning the key support of officials from Britain, France and the Netherlands, and a technical committee of the EU failed to ratify the directive in a vote in February, 2012. But the issue was only deferred, and European environment ministers are expected to vote on it later this year.

That has led Mr. Oliver to Europe, where he meets this week with politicians, bureaucrats and industry executives in Paris, London and Brussels to press his case. "We support measures that will result in lower emissions, provided those measures are effective and fair. But we believe the fuel quality directive is fundamentally flawed, and it has to be fixed or replaced."

Mr. Oliver maintains that other sources of fuel, including oil from Venezuela, Russia and Africa, come with a much higher emissions count than advertised, as natural gas is burned off or vented during extraction – and that byproduct doesn't count in the emissions total. As a result, assertions that Canadian crude is dirtier are not true, he said.

The minister took further issue with Mr. Gore, saying "Using words like 'open sewer' are unfortunate and an attempt to create an impression which is false." Mr. Oliver maintained that Canada has made progress by reducing emissions per barrel by 26 per cent and that developers have committed to return the land "completely … to its original state … We've done a lot, we're going to do more," said Mr. Oliver." I'm very proud of our record, and it's a record that we're happy to stand on."

Greenpeace Canada spokesman Keith Stewart said that while oil-sands per capita emissions had indeed fallen 26 per cent since 1990, they are projected to rise as developers increasingly shift to a more energy-intensive process to extract bitumen from underground. "The claim that [emissions are improving] is no longer true," he said. "There is no way the Harper government can achieve its own greenhouse-gas target by 2020 without doing something about the tar sands."

With a report from Shawn McCarthy

Doug Saunders's interview with Al Gore is available here. Mr. Gore speaks on Tuesday with Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse at Ryerson Theatre in Toronto.