DAWN WALTON
CALGARY — Conservationists will be rolling out an advertising campaign and dispatching polar-bear-suit-clad protesters this week in an attempt to derail Alberta’s mission to Washington that is aimed at propping up the province’s environmental image south of the border.
Ron Stevens, Alberta’s deputy premier and Minister of International and Intergovernmental Relations, said he will stress his province’s commitment to “environmentally sustainable development of the oil sands” when he meets with U.S. government officials, industry representatives and policy analysts this week.
But he will also be trailed by protesters and a full-page newspaper ad featuring an oil-soaked maple leaf that describes Canada’s oil sands as a major contributor to global warming and a supplier to the United States of the “world’s dirtiest oil.”
The $12,000 (U.S.) ad that will run tomorrow in Roll Call, Washington’s congressional newspaper, is backed by a coalition of environmental groups, which also criticize Alberta’s soon to be launched $25-million advertising campaign aimed at improving the province’s “brand” and “perception.”
“We can’t compete with a $25-million PR budget that the Alberta government’s allocated to try and convince lawmakers in Washington that everything’s okay,” said Aaron Freeman, policy director of the Environmental Defence, a Toronto-based advocacy group that is backing the U.S. advertising.
“But at the end of the day, we don’t need that kind of budget because you can’t paint a black hole green and the tar sands is a very big, black hole.”
Industry plans to spend $100-billion over the next decade in northern Alberta’s oil sands with an eye to tripling oil production. Meanwhile, a fraction of that has been spent on developing clean and renewable energy. Still, Mr. Stevens plans to tell U.S. officials about Alberta’s commitment to clean energy, its greenhouse-gas-reduction policy and its $148-million investment in developing technology that could capture and store emissions.
ForestEthics, an international non-profit environmental group also behind the ad, is promising to don polar bear suits as they follow the Alberta delegation.
“We have bad climate policy in Canada largely because of the tar sands,” said Gillian McEachern, who campaigns on climate and boreal forest issues. “The federal government can act to clean it up.”
Critics also want to ensure that new U.S. energy legislation designed to cut down consumption of fuel derived from dirty sources will apply to the oil sands. But Mr. Stevens will be lobbying so that new fuel requirement in the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act doesn’t affect Alberta, which is a major energy exporter to the United States.
Mark Cooper, a spokesman travelling with the deputy premier, said there’s “no doubt” Alberta needs to do more on the environmental front, but this mission aims to “correct the myths, inaccuracies and distortions” about the province’s record.
“We’re not going to allow props and polar bear suits to get in the way of telling the true story,” he said.
A “stop the tar sands” campaign dogged Premier Ed Stelmach’s provincial election campaign this year and public opinion polls routinely show concern about the rapid pace of development, but his Progressive Conservative Party still won in a landslide, grabbing 72 of the legislature’s 83 seats.
Still, attacks on government and industry are not relenting.
At the Premier’s fundraising dinner in Edmonton last week, two Greenpeace members descended from the rafters and unfurled a banner that read, “$telmach: the best Premier oil money can buy” as 1,000 party faithful looked on.
It was an embarrassing and serious security breach. The activists were later charged with trespassing.
Last week, about 50 protesters, including members of the Lubicon Cree, rallied outside pipeline company TransCanada Corp.’s annual general meeting in Calgary to complain about unresolved land claims and to ask for a more thorough environmental assessment in an area north of Edmonton where the company plans to build a major natural gas pipeline to feed oil-sands production.
Also last week, environmentalists protested at the annual meeting in Toronto of EnCana Corp., which is already charged with violating Canada’s Wildlife Act by allegedly installing pipeline without a permit in Canadian Forces Base Suffield National Wildlife Area, where it now hopes to pursue further drilling.