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It's been a trying year for Alberta's oil sands as major investments evaporated and its biggest customer threatened to cut off sales of its carbon-rich crude.

Now, a devastating spill in the Gulf of Mexico is making the oil sands look like the safe, dependable, and even clean, option for Americans, according to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

"It's not something I'm going to point to," Mr. Stelmach insisted Thursday in Washington, where he is on a three-day oil sands sales. "We're not going to compare."

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But then he did.

After delivering a speech to U.S. industry and government officials, Mr. Stelmach pointed out that spills along the vast pipeline network that carries Alberta crude to the United States can be easily contained and isolated.

And he said the problems faced in capping a massive leak at a British Petroleum underwater well off the Louisiana coast should trigger new questions about what's considered "unconventional" oil.

"Whether offshore or in the oil sands, it's got to be done right for the environment," Mr. Stelmach told reporters after a speech to government and industry officials at the Canadian embassy in which he defended Alberta's environmental record. All oil extraction comes with risks of spills and blowouts, he added. "We have to acknowledge that."

The Gulf oil spill underscores the relative safety of oil sands crude, some analysts suggest.

"The disaster unfolding in the Gulf only solidifies Canada's place as a secure source of oil for the United States," said Eric Roseman of Montreal-based ENR Asset Management Inc. on his blog Tuesday.

Mr. Stelmach said he's only trying to ensure the oil sands gets fair treatment in the face of a wave of federal and state efforts that threaten to penalize Alberta's heavy crude and other high-carbon fuels. Pending regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - which is poised to cap greenhouse gases since Congress won't - threaten to cut off the sale of oil sands crude from Alberta to refineries south of the border. And dozens of states are moving ahead with regulations that would penalize carbon-intensive fuels and spur use of greener alternatives.

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In his speech, Mr. Stelmach highlighted how the oils sands benefits the United States by enhancing energy security and generating economic spinoffs across the United States via companies involved in its extraction.

"It's got to be fair," he said of U.S. efforts to target high-carbon fuels.

He acknowledged that Alberta hasn't always done a great job of explaining the industry's efforts to make extraction more efficient and less polluting.

"Perhaps we haven't explained them well enough, or wide enough," he said. "Our job is to get the message out."

So far, he said he's getting a "very good reception" from U.S. lawmakers.

Mr. Stelmach, who ends his visit Friday, is to meet several senators focused on energy or national security issues, including Democrats Mark Udall of Colorado and Carl Levin of Michigan, and Republicans John Tester of Montana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

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Also speaking at Thursday's sparsely attended event - billed as the "North American Energy Security Summit" - was David Goldwyn, a top State Department adviser on international energy issues.

Mr. Goldwyn said the U.S. government is trying to strike a balance between economic security and climate security. "Sometimes it's a hard balance," he conceded.

Major U.S. energy consumers, meanwhile, worry that a low-carbon fuel standard may be inevitable in the United States. "We're very concerned," said Michael Whatley, vice-president of the Consumer Energy Alliance, a broad coalition of major U.S. energy consumers.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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