Canadian official raps greens on oil pipeline in Chicago speech

A top Canadian official on Tuesday delivered a broadside against environmentalists in the United States who oppose the proposed Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver touted a U.S. State Department draft environmental review released Friday that dismissed claims from green groups that Keystone would accelerate oil sands development and exacerbate climate change.

“Why then all the fuss? Why the demonstrations and movie stars chaining themselves to the White House gate?” Oliver said in prepared remarks for a Tuesday speech in Chicago, where he met with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“The answer is that some environmental and other groups see this as a symbolic issue in their larger battle against the development of hydrocarbons and specifically the oil sands. In a democratic society, they are entitled to their views, but not to take liberties with the truth. The stakes are high for Canada and, I suggest, the U.S. as well,” he said.

Environmental activists have tried to make President Obama’s decision on the pipeline the litmus test for where he stands on climate issues in his second term.

They have denounced the findings of the State Department's draft report, and sought to remind Obama that he alone will choose whether the Canada-to-Texas pipeline goes forward, because it crosses national borders.

Green groups contend the proposed pipeline would drive an expansion of oil sands development. They have raised concerns about the climate change impact of burning more oil sands, which are more carbon-intensive than traditional crude.

Still, the State Department said the oil sands would come out of the ground regardless of Keystone, either by rail transport or through other pipeline projects.

Oliver, who several times invoked the State Department review, defended Canada’s environmental record while downplaying the effects of oil sands on the climate.

He reiterated a claim made recently by several Keystone proponents, that oil sands account for 0.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“Many opponents are spreading false information about the oil sands, especially its impact on the environment. ... I believe the decision about whether or not to build more oil pipelines between our two countries should be based on science and facts, not conjecture, hyperbole or ideology,” Oliver said.

While environmentalists and a large swathe of Democrats oppose the project, mainly for climate reasons, many U.S. interests want to the pipeline to be built.

Republicans, centrist Democrats, business groups and even some unions back Keystone. They say Canada is determined to develop the oil sands, and that the U.S. should reap the promised construction jobs and oil supplies from a friendly neighbor.

Oliver touched on many of those points in his Tuesday speech.

“There are important complementary interests here: America needs oil and Canada has an abundance of it. It only makes sense to work together toward our common goals of improving the environment, growing the economy and strengthening our common security,” he said.

Oliver also noted developers have backup plans to build a pipeline west for export to China and east to send oil sands to Europe.

Republicans have often mentioned those possibilities in their attempts to persuade Obama to approve Keystone. By rejecting Keystone, they contend, Obama would be turning his back on thousands of potential jobs.

Oliver called the pipeline an opportunity for the U.S., but noted Canada had no qualms about looking elsewhere if Obama scuttles the project.

“The oil sands are a vital resource for Canada and our future economic prosperity. So let there be no doubt: Our future is not tied to any one pipeline. Canada will continue to develop its oil sands and seek out new customers,” Oliver said.

— This story was updated at 4:39 p.m. on March 6.