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Elizabeth Shope’s Blog

Caught in the act: Canada's lobbying for tar sands and against clean energy

Elizabeth Shope

Posted December 1, 2010

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To be accurate, Canada wasn’t exactly caught with its hand in the cookie jar. It was more as though it was caught by one of those traffic cameras, blatantly running a red light, making traffic with the green light screech to a halt to avoid an accident. But it took awhile before the photographic evidence could be processed and the ticket issued. Except, it wasn’t a one-time-deal – it has continued to run red lights in even more dangerous situations and with greater frequency and refuses to acknowledge that putting others in peril this way is at all wrong.

Access to Information Act requests by The Pembina Institute and Climate Action Network Canada have recently helped to reveal to what extent the Canadian and Alberta governments have been teaming with the oil industry and lobbying in the U.S. and Europe to inhibit environmental regulations that would slow or stop Canadian exports of the environmentally destructive tar sands oil to those regions.

The Pembina Institute made public on Monday the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT) emails they received in October – as an interim response to their March 2008 Access to Information Act request.

In a February 7, 2008 email from Hélène Viau of the United States Relation Division (NAR) of DFAIT to numerous other government officials, with regards to Section 526 of the United States’ 2007 Energy Bill – a federal fuel procurement provision that prohibits the purchasing of fuel with a higher carbon footprint than conventional oil – she suggests as “next steps” for Canada:

  • Drafting a letter to the U.S. Department of Energy or the Department of State and others that would “officially express Cda’s concerns with regard to section 526 and argue that oil sands products should not be targeted by this provision.”
  • Developing “‘a background brief and public key messages’ on oil sands for the use of all posts in the US.” She goes on to write “We understand that posts need this material sooner than later, especially given the aggressive campaign against Cdn oil sands.”
  • Developing “a comprehensive oil sands advocacy strategy to focus on outreach to allies, influencers, legislators, etc.”

Perhaps the official position and background brief are not that surprising; what is surprising and concerning is their official advocacy strategy, how their advocacy has been happening, and how much the Canadian officials are collaborating with the oil companies. Paul Connors, an energy counselor at the embassy at the time of his January 22, 2008 email to Susan Carter of ExxonMobil, wrote to Carter:

As yours is a company involved in the production of oil sands in Canada, I wanted to bring this issue [Section 526] to your attention. I would encourage your firm to make its views known to DOE and the Hill. I would be most grateful for your company’s views on the issue.

ExxonMobil wasn’t his only contact. Connors wrote to Hélène Viau and a few others:

Separately Post contacted the American Petroleum Institute (CAPP equivalent/CAPP also contacted API) and the major oil companies importing bitumen from Canada (ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Encana, Marathon). All advised that they did not focus on Section 526 as they did not see it as having the scope now being suggested by some ENGOs. The API has struck a working group to address the issue with Capitol Hill and the Administration’s Working Group.

Sometimes people make the argument for tar sands that Canada is friendly and that even though their oil is some of the dirtiest in the world, it’s still better to import oil from a country like Canada than from the Middle East – “energy security,” they say. My colleague Liz Barratt-Brown addresses in her blog why tar sands actually poses energy security risks – as well as environmental and climate risks. She writes:

There are energy security risks in expanding our reliance on high carbon fuels. We will be locked in to the use of these fuels through an extensive network of pipelines and refineries, the politics of which are already undercutting our ability to pass low carbon fuel and fuel efficiency initiatives that wean us from oil. Without these oil savings policies, we will remain hostage to oil price volatility, oil wars and the cost to our economy of purchasing oil. And, in the longer term, national security is risked by aggravating climate change – a position increasingly endorsed by the military establishment.

At a time when we so desperately need to be reducing our demand for fossil fuels and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, working with the oil industry to lobby against Section 526 isn’t friendly; it’s downright backhanded.  

DFAIT, Environment Canada, and Natural Resources Canada weren’t just lobbying against Section 526, though. Their advocacy has had a far greater span. A report released last week by Climate Action Network Canada (CAN Canada), entitled The Tar Sands’ Long Shadow: Canada’s Campaign to Kill Climate Policies Outside Our Borders, highlights Canada and Alberta’s lobbying against not only Section 526, but also against California’s low carbon fuel standard, and the European Union’s Fuel Quality Directive – two provisions that aim to encourage cleaner fuels and discourage dirty fuels.

If my introductory metaphors weren’t enough for you, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the CAN Canada report:

Picture a person swimming through a fast-moving river. As the water gests more and more turbulent, our swimmer starts to worry about going under, so she reaches out and grabs a tree branch to save herself.

Now imagine another person coming up to the riverbank and seeing the swimmer. He shows no interest in helping her climb out; instead, he starts trying to pull the branch out of her hands.

Of course none of us would do this to another human being. But its’ not too far away from the approach the Government of Canada is taking towards climate policies in other countries.

This isn’t what the U.S. wants, or what Europe wants, or even what Canadians want. The Tar Sands’ Long Shadow reports on a poll of over 1600 Canadians from June 2010 – 86% either “strongly agree” or “somewhat agree” that climate change “is a good issued for Canada to be a leader on, rather than waiting for others to act.”

Yet, Canada and Alberta have continued to advocate for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, against climate policies, and even against environmental regulations that would force the tar sands to be slightly less dirty.

We’re not going to let that fly, though. On November 24, twenty-nine leaders of environmental organizations sent a letter to Secretary Clinton, asking that the State Department go back and do the analysis of the environmental impacts of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline right, as has already been asked by EPA and members of Congress. Getting it right means gathering additional information, doing new research and releasing it in the form of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement with a new public review period. And just yesterday, the No Tar Sands Oil coalition launched a new nationwide advertising campaign, calling on President Obama to prevent the next oil disaster by stopping the Keystone XL pipeline from being built.

Dear Canada, we see you – and it’s not just one hand or two hands but your whole body in the cookie jar. You’ve had enough cookies, it’s time to get out.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

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