NISKU, Alberta – This is oil country.
Beneath the peat bogs and boreal forests in the northern part of this Canadian province are among the largest oil reserves in the world. Canadians have been getting it out of the prairies for more than 100 years and piping much of it to the United States, which imports more oil from Canada than anywhere else.
But President Obama’s denial of a permit for a new oil pipeline from Canada to Texas that has been worked on for years has angered many here who claim that the U.S. environmental lobby is harming their livelihoods without scientific basis.
They even accuse it of illegally assisting Canadian environmental groups and say it’s time to scrap plans to sell more oil to America and step up efforts to redirect the pipeline to the Pacific Coast and energy-hungry markets overseas.
“You’ve got a friendly source of oil from a friendly country,” says welder Rob Tessier after lunching at the Pipeline Alley Cafe in Nisku. “If you don’t want it, we’ll send it to an Asian market.”
Environmental groups say it’s time for Canada to reassess its exploitation of its energy resources. They say oil pipelines are encroaching on sensitive lands and are improving access to oil when the world should be putting more effort into solar power and other forms of renewable energy.
Canada must stop “putting all our eggs in one basket,” says Merran Smith, director of Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada.
Canadians, even the tens of thousands in the oil industry, pride themselves on taking full advantage of their energy resources to create jobs while ensuring the protection and beauty of natural surroundings Canada is known for. But as the environmental movement gains influence in the United States, Canada is feeling the effects.
Obama’s denial of the Keystone XL project has sent politicians at each other and provoked heavy criticism of the local environmental groups.
Workers in Nisku, an industrial center where plants manufacture pipes for the petroleum deposits in the north of the province, are especially bewildered given that the southern leg of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to the Texas Gulf coast already had been approved.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the approval of Keystone XL a “no-brainer.” Stunned by the project’s denial, he is pushing for a “Northern Gateway” pipeline that will direct more Canadian oil to Asia.
“Certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America,” Harper said.
He has an ally in U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who wants Keystone to go forward to create jobs in the United States.
The ire of the pro-pipeline people has focused on the alleged nefarious influence from the south on Canada’s environmentalists. In the past, U.S. groups and foundations primarily donated funds to Canada groups for preservation efforts, such as protecting old-growth forests, said Vancouver researcher Vivian Krause.
But in recent years, U.S.-based groups such as the U.S. Tides Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have been trying to prevent oil production in Canada, she says.
“This is a story of American interference in Canada under the guise of charity,” says Krause, whose research of U.S. tax returns made headlines here when she put the figure of foreign donations to Canadian environmentalists at $380 million in the last 10 years.
While the U.S. Department of the Interior has pleased environmental groups by reducing the number of energy leases and permits allowed on federal lands, Canada’s minister of natural resources is outraged that groups are trying to stop oil development here.
Minister Joe Oliver accused opponents of the Northern Gateway of taking “funding from foreign special-interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.” And it’s not just politicians who are assailing environmentalists.
A group dubbed “Ethical Oil,” which began as a blog, highlights how Canadian oil is produced under stringent legal and environmental standards developed to ensure protection of wildlife and pristine nature.
Ethical Oil’s Jamie Ellerton also contrasts Canadian oil from that of the Persian Gulf and Venezuela, two of the biggest oil exporters to the United States, pointing out that they are known to fund anti-American activity and are regularly criticized for abusing human rights.
“If you care about human rights and peace ... buy oil from Canada instead of propping up tyrants,” Ellerton says.
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