Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper fuels opposition to oilsands projects

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his hyper-aggressive Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver are rapidly turning doubt about Canada's bitumen into bitter opposition.

Oliver, who travelled to Europe last week to promote Alberta's heavy oil, ended up alienating his hosts and provoking a trade spat by vowing to take the European Union to court if it imposes an import tax on Canada's "dirty oil."

Harper then went to New York and attempted to defend TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline from climate change activists in the United States.

Back home, the two men have stirred up so much ill will in British Columbia by demonizing "radical environmental groups" and cutting short public hearings that they have all but killed chances of getting Alberta's oil to the Pacific. In Edmonton, Premier Alison Redford, struggling to find a market for her province's landlocked oil, has resorted to a level of deficit spending that has shocked Albertans and sent her public support plummeting.

Watching Canada's descent from "energy superpower" to a stubborn peddler of environmentally damaging fossil fuel has been like witnessing a slow-motion train wreck. Yet the government refuses to recognize the damage it has done, much less change its strategy. It has become clear to everyone -- except the prime minister, apparently -- that lecturing potential buyers while spewing increasing amounts of carbon into the atmosphere is not going to work.

What Canada needs to do is provide wary buyers proof that it has a credible plan to clean up the oilsands, that it is working with scientists and environmentalists to extract the oil without using vast amounts of water and gas and that it respects its trading partners' desire for sustainable energy.

The makings of such a policy already exist. Oilsands producers have made modest progress in reducing the intensity of their emissions. Alberta has just levied a serious tax on carbon production. And an increasing number of eastern Canadians who once regarded the oilsands as a blight on the ecosystem are open to developing them if it can be done responsibly.

But Harper's refusal to ratchet down the rhetoric has overshadowed these promising developments.

It is clear Canada cannot sell its bitumen to a wary world without an attitude change and a course shift. The longer Harper and his senior ministers remain in denial, the more difficult it will be for Alberta to export its bitumen and become a source of national economic strength.

This is no longer an ideological issue. It is a simple matter of common sense.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2013 A9

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