Skip to main content

Approximately a dozen protesters gather on Parliament Hill to demonstrate against the Alberta oil sands in Ottawa, Wednesday September 8, 2010.

It was the 2009 annual summer retreat of the Green Group – the chief executives, presidents and executive directors of the largest environmental organizations in the United States – and their Canadian counterparts had wrangled an invitation for the first time.

The U.S. environmental movement appeared to be on a roll, with a new ally in the White House, the House of Representatives on the verge of passing a climate bill, and guarded optimism about a breakthrough at the United Nations summit in Copenhagen later that year.

That June, the green leaders gathered at the Airlie Center, a historic farmhouse turned conference centre an hour's drive from Washington, in rural Virginia. Billed as an "island of thought," Airlie is a sylvan retreat for American progressives: It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. laid plans for the Poor People's Campaign and U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson announced plans for the first national Earth Day.

For the Canadian eco-activists, the Airlie session had an equivalent significance, marking the moment when the broad and powerful U.S. environmental movement turned its focus – and well-financed campaign tactics – against Canada's booming oil sands.

The concerted attack that began there set the stage for this week's decision by the White House to reject a proposed oil-sands pipeline through the U.S. heartland.

Green groups on both sides of the border are vowing to keep up pressure on the Achilles heel of the Canadian oil industry – the multibillion-dollar pipelines needed to transport Canadian crude to markets in the U.S. and Asia. In doing so, the environmental groups are rushing headlong into a confrontation with the Conservative government, which is determined to get a pipeline built through British Columbia and has criticized foreign critics as troublesome "special interests" who have no business getting involved.

Indeed, the government wants to frame the issue in traditional economic nationalist terms, draping the oil sands in the maple leaf and shielding Canada's economic engine from costly interference from abroad. The reality is that the oil sands – and Canada's place on the world's energy map – are a global concern. And there are stakeholders on both sides of the debate well beyond our borders.

A light switches on

While the oil sands were not unknown to U.S. activists in the summer of 2009, the Americans attending the green summit were consumed with their own battles. But the Canadians arrived with a blunt message to look north: In Alberta's oil sands, they warned, multinational companies were rapidly expanding production of a particularly nasty source of crude.

As 20 top U.S. environmentalists sat silently, Greenpeace Canada executive director Bruce Cox gave a presentation that spelled out the oil sands' enormous impact and the surge in greenhouse-gas emissions that would accompany the massive expansion that was planned by the industry and endorsed by federal and provincial governments.

One graphic was particularly eye-catching: a map of existing and proposed pipelines, resembling a spider web spinning out from Alberta across the central United States, to carry oil-sands bitumen to U.S. refineries.

"It was a clarion call," Mr. Cox said this week in an interview. "And we had a specific ask: 'We want you to engage on this subject. We want you to put it on the radar.' "

By all accounts, the Greenpeace session was a galvanizing moment. Groups like the influential Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) had campaigned against the oil sands for years, but now the top leadership was directly engaged, and other groups picked up the ball.

"The meeting with the Canadian groups really made a difference," NRDC president Frances Beinecke, one of the attendees, said from her New York office. "It was a very important session for elevating our attention in the U.S. to this issue and the interrelationship between the two countries."

In response to politicians and others who promote Canadian oil as an "ethical" alternative to imports from Islamic plutocracies and conflict regions, she said, "We want a cleaner energy future, and taking us from one addiction to another doesn't move us forward in that regard."

The counter-punch

The Obama administration's decision this week to impose a further delay in approving TransCanada Corp.'s $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline project brought howls of outrage from Republicans and the oil industry, and "profound disappointment" from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The State Department did invite the company to reapply when it has completed the rerouting of the pipeline around the ecologically sensitive Sand Hills region in Nebraska – essentially punting the final decision until after next November's elections.

Stung, the Harper government has lashed out at foreign environmental groups, characterizing them as "radicals" and "jet-setting celebrities" fuelling pipeline controversies in Canada. Federal regulators are now holding a public review of Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline, and the government has warned that foreign groups are financing delaying tactics to undermine the development in the oil sands.

The Harper government itself has actively lobbied in state, federal and European capitals to oppose policies that it views as detrimental to Canadian oil. Yet it has good reason to worry about the globalization of the opposition. The stakes are enormous, and not only for the Prime Minister's home province.

Oil is now Canada's largest export by far, and the country ranks third in total crude reserves behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Meanwhile critics worry that the oil boom is transforming the country into something of a petro state, driving the loonie higher at the expense of Central Canadian manufacturing.

In the U.S., activists have targeted fossil-fuel production and use, with campaigns against coal, oil and the controversial "fracking" extraction of shale gas. But oil is the most politically divisive.

U.S. groups such as the NRDC have been active in Canada, and foreign foundations have funnelled money to Canadian environmental groups and activists, in some cases specifically to organize opposition to the Gateway pipeline through B.C.

Even in Europe, the Canadian government is battling an effort within the European Parliament – backed by well-organized activists – to pass low-carbon fuel regulations that would rate oil-sands crude as the world's worst from the standpoint of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet the environmental community is simply following the pattern of the international oil industry, which seeks to influence policy wherever it has operations. And they are also following a known script for global campaigns, whether to save the Brazilian rain forest, to protect tiger habitats in Asia or, indeed, to halt logging in British Columbia's Clayoquot Sound.

Canadian oil producers are now finding they have to respond to the heightened international campaign against them, said David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, speaking from Washington, where he was meeting U.S. colleagues, Canadian embassy staff and analysts to assess the political climate for Canadian oil exports in the 2012 election year.

"It's a global business, and it's hard to draw boxes around these things," he said. "Ultimately, it is for Canadians to decide whether those voices are relevant to the debate or not."

Who's winning?

International groups have seized on the Alberta development as a potent symbol in the much bigger fight over climate change. Mr. Collyer argued that the groups have been acting out of fear, trying to win a battle to show that they are not losing the war.

Since the optimistic days of the Green Group summit, the U.S. Senate has failed to pass climate legislation, Mr. Obama has proved disappointing on emission regulations and international climate talks have faltered.

In turn, the environmental campaign has provoked a public-relations response in Canada: the founding of, a group with close ties to the Harper government and the industry. The group has been highly critical of the foreign groups that have financed campaigns in Canada.

"These groups unfairly target Canada and our oil sands because it's an easy, risk-free target for them," EthicalOil spokeswoman Kathryn Marshall said.

But Rick Smith, executive director of Toronto-based Environmental Defence and an attendee at the 2009 Green Group summit, said the Canadian activists sought out the support of U.S. colleagues to help even the playing field against the hugely powerful oil industry.

"Canadian environmentalists were working on these issues long before we saw any greenbacks," Mr. Smith said. "It was really the aggressive expansion of the tar sands themselves that has made this into a continental issue and an international issue."

Canadian officials play down the climate impacts, saying the oil sands represent only 5 per cent of total emissions in Canada and that this country accounts for only 2 per cent of global emissions. But critics say the country's per-capita emissions are among the highest in the world, and Ottawa will not be able to reduce them if oil-sands production grows as expected.

Choke point

Shortly after the Airlie meeting, the NRDC's Ms. Beinecke visited Fort McMurray, Alta., along with Margie Alt, president of Environment America, a green umbrella group. Both women say they were awed by the sheer scale of the bitumen mines run by Suncor Energy and Syncrude.

"Clearly the overriding concern of the environmental community globally is climate change," she said. "And it really doesn't matter where it comes from or where you burn it."

But she said it is wrong to assume that the NRDC has an inordinate focus on Alberta's oil producers. The sprawling environmental charity – with a annual budget of $100-million (U.S.) – has offices across the United States and one in Beijing. It works on the full range of environmental issues, including coal mining, shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, renewable energy and clean oceans.

But Ottawa and Alberta can expect environmentalists across borders to keep up the pressure, whether on a Keystone revival, the Gateway project or any future proposal. Having gotten nowhere persuading governments to rein in oil-sands growth in the first place, they will keep looking to block the infrastructure it takes to get the oil to market.

Shawn McCarthy is the Globe and Mail's global energy reporter.