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'I Was Disappointed With the Canadians'

When Canadian officials lobby against lower fuel carbon standards south of the border, they play for keeps. Ask a bruised Wisconsin scientist.

By Geoff Dembicki 9 Dec 2010 |

Geoff Dembicki is lead sustainability writer for The Tyee. He's reported from Beijing, Hawaii, San Francisco, New York and Washington, DC. In addition to The Tyee his writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, Vice, Salon, Walrus and the Toronto Star.

Twitter: @geoffdembicki

Click for resume.

On Feb. 10 this year, two Canadian government officials appeared before a public hearing in Wisconsin to deliver a solemn warning.

The state was then considering adoption of broad climate change legislation designed to generate tens of thousands of green jobs. That package included a low carbon fuel standard, which proponents hoped would cut the state's reliance on high-carbon fossil fuels and boost a burgeoning renewable energy sector.

Canadian consuls Brian Herman and Georges Rioux were not originally scheduled to speak, but a snowstorm had left the Alberta government's U.S. representative, Gary Mar, stranded in Washington D.C. "[Mar] is practicing with his new snowshoes this morning," Rioux joked to the Senate Select Committee on Clean Energy.

Wisconsin, it turns out, is wholly dependant on Canadian oil. Nearly half its crude supply comes from north of the border, and much of that from Alberta's greenhouse gas-intensive oil sands.

"I would like to leave you with one request," Rioux read aloud from a prepared statement. "While you pursue new energy policies including a potential [low carbon fuel standard] please ask the question: Will this result in Wisconsin becoming more dependant on oil from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Venezuela because we've cut off supply from our northern neighbours, our friends and allies?"

Three months later, the state dropped low carbon fuel standard provisions from its Clean Energy Jobs Act.

It was a major victory in the ongoing Canadian government campaign to keep oil sands crude pumping into American markets.

At stake are huge tax and royalty revenues that would flow from accelerated oil sands production into Albertan and Canadian governments' coffers. But if low carbon fuel standard frameworks being developed at state levels are adopted by Congress, that could reduce U.S. oil sands demand by a third by 2030, according to experts.

The hard sell from north of the border has left some U.S. climate change advocates feeling bruised, including one Wisconsin scientist who says it was "frustrating" to confer with Canadian officials who talked green, and later see them act the opposite.

Federal oil sands 'advocacy strategy'

The earliest evidence that Canada was campaigning at the state level to promote oil sands exports over proposed climate change policies dates back to Nov. 2008, when Canada's former ambassador to the U.S., Michael Wilson, wrote a concerned letter to the chairman of California's Air Resources Board. The state's pending low carbon fuel standard laws, Wilson fretted, would discriminate unfairly against Alberta's oil sands.

Government emails obtained by Climate Action Network (CAN) Canada suggest Wilson's letter was part of an oil sands "advocacy strategy" being developed in late 2008 by three federal departments.

Further documents show Canadian policymakers anticipated negative economic impacts from American climate change laws.

"U.S. legislation at both federal and state levels potentially target oilsands production," reads a March 2009 powerpoint presentation prepared by Natural Resources Canada.

That April, with California's low carbon fuel standard gaining legislative momentum, then-natural resources minister Lisa Raitt wrote directly to then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, insistent on changes.

Production emissions from Alberta's oil sands are generally 82 per cent higher than more conventional operations, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. California also produces carbon-heavy oil, which fuel standard opponents say the legislation doesn't address. Raitt, in her letter, proposed that all road fuels made from crude oil be considered equal from a greenhouse gas perspective -- a measure that green observers say would undermine the entire policy.

"Briefly stated," she wrote, "we are concerned that the proposed [low carbon fuel standard] regulation could lead to unfavourable treatment of Canadian crude oil."

California officially approved its fuel standard this January -- but not before the Canadian government had formally intervened three more times, a recent CAN Canada report noted.

Renner's mission to America

This June, the Alberta government sent its environment minister, Rob Renner, to the eastern U.S. on a mission of "particular importance," records show. His objective, besides touting the province's green credentials, was to "help inform the development process" of a regional low carbon fuel standard being considered by 11 states.

Renner spent four days schmoozing with policymakers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. While in Boston, he delivered the keynote speech at an energy conference hosted by the Consumer Energy Alliance, a self-described non-partisan organization with some of the continent's largest oil companies as members. (Click here to read a Tyee report about the group).

The conference examined "the potentially adverse consequences" of a northeastern fuel standard. Renner stuck to the theme, warning that such an initiative could actually slow environmental progress in his province's oil sands.

"It is important the Alberta government take advantage of opportunities to tell our story, especially in jurisdictions considering policy that may impact Alberta," Renner wrote in an email to The Tyee, regarding his speech.

Burned by Alberta?

This was not the first time the Consumer Energy Alliance shared a stage with Albertan officials. NESCAUM, the regional agency developing northeastern fuel standard guidelines, asked for stakeholder input in late Oct. 2009. The CEA's executive director, Michael Whatley, and Alberta's U.S. representative, Gary Mar, both provided testimony. According to meeting notes, Mar "argued that the U.S. has a valid interest in obtaining some level of energy security through purchasing oil sands from Canada."

Whatley considers policymakers such as Mar and Renner to be effective allies. "We do work closely with the Alberta government folks and have a very strong relationship with those guys," he told The Tyee.

Mar's Washington office declined requests for an interview. "He's just busy with other things, we'll have to take a pass for this time around," a spokesperson said.

In late 2009, Wisconsin scientist Peter Taglia came away from a tour of the oil sands convinced that the Alberta government really did care about climate change. He'd been in Alberta as part of a delegation sent from the American Midwest. Ten economically intertwined states were -- and still are -- considering adoption of a regional low carbon fuel standard. Taglia, who works for a green group called Clean Wisconsin, belongs to a stakeholder group tasked with developing guidelines for such a policy.

Because nearly all oil sands crude flows directly into the Midwest, the group decided to hold its first meeting in Alberta. The visit went very well, Taglia remembered. Alberta policymakers talked big about progress and research -- and how they were investing huge in carbon capture and storage. But months later, as Wisconsin debated its own fuel standard, Taglia began to doubt their good will.

Canadian testimony at public hearings portrayed the policy in a very negative light, he said. And behind the scenes, Taglia claimed, Albertan officials lobbied vigorously against it.

"I think they're trying to tell two different stories," he told The Tyee. "They behave basically the same way the Texas oil companies do."

Not seeking 'special treatment': Renner

The provincial government argues that in all its dealings with U.S. policymakers, it's merely trying to share pertinent information. "We are not looking for special treatment but fair treatment," Renner wrote The Tyee in an email.

Taglia doesn't think the Albertan intervention alone caused Wisconsin to drop its low carbon fuel standard this April. Strong fossil fuel opposition from companies such as Koch Industries -- which owns Flint Hills Resources, a major refiner of oil sands crude -- also factored.

But Taglia expected better from his northern neighbors. "I was disappointed with the Canadians," he said. "It was frustrating to work with them."  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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