Opinion

COLUMN: Tarsands ecological footprint influenced by U.S.

Stephen Harper’s government is locked in an unprecedented political battle with millions of American environmentalists. Alongside one of this country’s biggest corporations, the Conservatives have entangled Canada in one of the most controversial decisions of Barack Obama’s presidency.

The Harper government has lobbied vigorously in support of Calgary-based TransCanada’s plan to build a $7 billion pipeline to take up to 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The prime minister has pressed Obama to approve Keystone XL while his ministers have visited Washington to pursue the matter with the Secretary of State. When he visited Washington last month foreign minister John Baird told the press Keystone XL was his main priority.

Canada’s ambassador in Washington, Gary Doer, has also spent a large amount of his time pushing the pipeline, prompting TransCanada to send him a “thank you” note on August 30, 2011. “Gary,” reads an email from the pipeline firm, “I just wanted to send a quick note to thank you and your team for all of the hard work and perseverance in helping get us this far, I know it has made a big difference.”

The ambassador responded to critical media commentary and pressed state officials to support the pipeline. When Nebraska’s Republican governor Dave Heineman initially came out against the project Doer visited him in Omaha. Similarly, the 28 members of Congress who urged the State Department to consider the “major environmental and health hazards” posed by Keystone XL received an immediate letter from Canada’s ambassador and Alberta’s minister of intergovernmental relations. “I believe it necessary to address several points in your letter,” Doer wrote. The ambassador’s letter trumpeted Canada’s plan to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. “[This is] a benchmark we intend to meet,” Doer wrote, even though planned tar sands expansion will make this objective difficult to reach.

In an article that was part of a series dubbed the “The War for the Oil Sands in Washington” the Tyee described the intensity of Canadian lobbying efforts on behalf of Keystone XL. One congressional aide compared Canadian officials to “aggressive” car salesmen. It “was the most direct encounter I’ve had with a lobbyist representing a foreign nation,” another congressional staffer told the online news site.

Canada’s 22 consular offices in the US have also been ordered to take up the cause. When the New York Times ran an editorial titled “Say No to the Keystone XL” Canada’s consul general in New York wrote a letter supporting the project.

TransCanada has been equally aggressive in its lobbying. The company has spent millions to convince federal and state politicians. In Nebraska alone TransCanada has spent almost $1 million lobbying lawmakers and also helped set up a non-profit called Nebraskans for Jobs and Energy Independence. The group paid for a robocall that contained the following: “Please Press 1 now to authorize us to send a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will help to lower gas prices, create American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

On the other side environmentalists  have used social media and traditional protests to heap scorn on TransCanada and Canada. A November 23 New York Times article headlined “Pipeline Protest Draws Pepper Spray From Deputies” reported on protests outside Wells, Texas. The paper reported that 40 protesters “chanted ‘Go back to Canada’ and waved signs with messages like … ‘Don’t mix Canadian tar with Texas water.’”

Protesters dogged the President on Keystone XL throughout 2011, leading Obama to postpone his decision until after the 2012 presidential election. On February 17, Presidents Day, tens of thousands of pipeline opponents are expected to converge on the White House. For the first time in its 120 year history, the million member Sierra Club USA has endorsed civil disobedience actions on that day.

Many Canadians share American environmentalists concerns about the tar sands’ ecological footprint. But, even those who do not should worry about the impact on this country’s reputation of the Harper government’s lobbying.

Once upon a time Canada was seen as a beacon to progressive Americans. What will we be known for in years to come?

Yves Engler is a researcher with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union of Canada. His most recent book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper's foreign policy

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