Outside column: Congress pressured to forego Alberta's oil sands

Posted: Wednesday, January 30, 2008

WASHINGTON - Few Americans are aware of it, but Canada is the biggest foreign supplier of energy to the United States.

You can look it up. Put crude oil, natural gas, electricity and refined products into one barrel, and no other country delivers such an energy load to fuel American homes, cars and industries.

Yet this mutually beneficial economic relationship between Canada and the U.S. may be in for some rough sledding because of the zealousness and arrogance of the green crusaders who now hold sway on Capitol Hill.

It would be too much to expect that such dead-certain and the divinely self-righteous people would re-examine and stop reciting their own gospel truth. People who know they're right don't capitulate before facts, let alone mere principles and opinions that challenge their positions.

In Washington, perhaps more than in any other capital, not a day goes by when self-interest and self-righteousness don't play their shadows like the weirdest lights of the Aurora Borealis.

Take the familiar topic of oil. We need and use oil - without it we'd freeze in the dark, be stuck in place, our tanks on empty. We also know that the politics and the power plays at the back of this basic necessity are murkier than the most viscous crude oil, to put it mildly.

A week before Christmas, President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Seven years in the making, the bill is a nightmare for any non-specialist to tackle. Hundreds of pages long, it is the proverbial lawyers' benefit act, which every lobby and every interest group will interpret for its own benefit.

Among others, giants such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland have been handed billions of dollars of assured profits and tax credits in what amounts to an open-ended appeal to grow corn for the ethanol mandated by the bill as automotive fuel. And the politically muscular Sierra Club got its wish in the auto fuel-efficiency provisions and biofuel requirements.

Increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandate was a major objective of the environmentalist lobby ever since Bush first proposed an energy bill in 2001.

And here's the point where Canada's interests - and most specifically - those of its petroleum-rich province of Alberta come in.

With the new energy bill's enormous emphasis on ethanol and biofuels of every description, the market for the plentiful oil from Alberta's Athabasca oil sands may no longer be assured.

The green bandwagon has left Washington's Union Station, and many of the world's wealthiest players are clambering onboard.

American environmentalists already have raised the cry about Alberta's "dirty oil" and if past is prologue, they will not let up. In mid-January, when Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach was in Washington on a major promotion visit, "dirty oil" pickets denouncing his province and, indeed all of Canada, milled around the Canadian embassy.

There were only about three dozen of them and, for all I know, most of them were rent-a-crowd. One of the organizers, a very young woman I spoke to several hours before the protest, told me she cared about forests and knew nothing about oil.

Rent-a-crowds and ignorance are no drawback here. When environmentalists stage a show in Washington, politicians listen up. That is why the protest against Alberta's "dirty oil" looks like the beginning of an American push back against Canada. They may be warring against the internal combustion engine as an agent of pollution, but Alberta may end up paying for their zeal.

Extracting oil from the oil sands is a polluting business that will not go unchallenged when green is the only color of choice, and U.S. environmentalists are determined to make Canada pay for the needs, desires and, yes - excesses of American motorists. Alberta has much riding on the oil sands. And, I think, Alberta has its work in Washington cut out for it.

• Bogdan Kipling is a columnist for The Halifax Chronicle Herald in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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