Canadian officials make climate case in DC ahead of Keystone pipeline decision

Alberta’s provincial government is trying to burnish its image on climate change as top Canadian officials make the case for U.S. approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.

“Even though we have had a presence here for some time, I don’t think we have really communicated as effectively as we need to on this,” Alberta’s Premier Alison Redford said in an interview at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.

{mosads}Redford and her environment minister, Diana McQueen, are in D.C. this weekend for meetings during the annual National Governors Association summit, which brings together U.S. governors and Obama administration officials.

The visit arrives as green groups are pressing the White House to scuttle the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline, a demand that was the focus of a major climate change rally in Washington on Feb. 17.

Advocates of the pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil sands and oil to Gulf Coast refineries, have long made their case on economic and energy security grounds.

But Redford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative party that won power in late 2011 and fended off a challenge last year, said she welcomes a broader discussion around climate and the environment.

“The fact is that there is a new conversation going on,” she said in the interview.

“We have been pretty honest about the fact that if you want to have economic development, there is environmental impact, don’t deny that at all, you have got to talk about the fact that you can manage that, that you can reduce the impact of that,” Redford said.

“And so we have really tried to change that dialogue and to be pretty straightforward about it, as opposed to dismissing the argument, which is entirely inappropriate, or I guess discounting the argument. It matters. It matters to all of us,” she added.

Indeed Redford said she’s quite comfortable with new Secretary of State John Kerry’s emphasis on climate change, even as green advocates hope Kerry’s longstanding advocacy will help tip the balance against Keystone. The State Department is heading the federal review of the pipeline project.

“I think it is important that he talks about it because it is an issue that we are all facing and that we are all dealing with, and so that leadership… is really important,” she said.

Alberta’s existing policy includes a carbon fee of $15/ton on large-scale polluters that do not drive down their emissions “intensity” below certain thresholds.

McQueen talked up the $300 million-plus it has raised – and the greater private sector dollars it has leveraged – for a fund that supports green energy projects.

“The good news stories are hard to get out,” McQueen said, noting the government wants to expand awareness of its efforts around climate.

She also touted efforts to develop carbon capture technologies, and said the province has made important strides on land stewardship and other environmental topics surrounding oil sands.

“Alberta is very much committed,” McQueen said. “It is important that we come here and we talk about that.”

Canada’s federal government is also planning to roll out new greenhouse gas rules for oil sands.

But critics call the provincial carbon tax, which began in 2007, far too modest to help drive down emissions.

And on Monday several climate scientists, in a press briefing organized by the anti-Keystone, anti-oil sands group 350.org, will bash the planned federal regulations.

The call will “address Canadian politicians’ misleading rhetoric and express their concerns that Canada’s much-touted oil and gas regulations will fail to do anything meaningful on climate change given the federally allowed expansion of tar sands development,” an advisory states.

Keystone critics say allowing the pipeline will help lock-in expanded development of the oil sands, a massive resource that is more greenhouse-gas intensive to produce than conventional oil, and ensure continued reliance on the fuels.

Proponents argue that blocking the project won’t affect the development of oil sands.

Redford’s visit is part of a broader effort by Canadian provincial and federal officials to emphasize various initiatives on climate as they push for approval of Keystone.

The White House decision could come within months.

The lobbying for the pipeline was on display when Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird met with Kerry earlier in February.

At the same time, officials and pipeline developer TransCanada Corp. are quick to argue that the overall contribution of oil sands to Canadian and global greenhouse gas emissions are relatively minor.

Oil sands production accounts for seven percent of total Canadian greenhouse gas emissions and roughly 0.1 percent of global emissions, according to the provincial and federal governments.

Overall greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands are projected to keep rising as development expands, even as producers have lowered their emissions “intensity,” which measures greenhouse gas emissions per barrel of oil produced.

Redford, for her part, says she is “optimistic” that Keystone will be approved.

She plans to keep talking to officials in the U.S. – and doesn’t intend to rely only on official and ceremonial visits.

Sitting in the Canadian Embassy on Saturday afternoon, she said the weekend trip to D.C. (which involves meetings with governors on topics beyond just Keystone) came together within the last couple of weeks.

“I think that there are two ways to build relationships with people. I think one is to plan a trip six months in advance and organize three days of meetings and sit down in bilaterals and exchange briefing notes that officials have drafted and then pretend to have a conversation about what is in the briefing notes and then walk away and report… it was a successful meeting,” she said.

But, she continued, there’s another way.

“Or you can actually just come down and renew relationships with people and talk about, at a political level, what your common interests are, renew acquaintances and on a more timely basis be part of the conversation,” Redford said.

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