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Oil sands to dominate agenda on Nancy Pelosi's visit to Canada

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Jose Luis Magana

One of the top officials in the U.S. government, Nancy Pelosi, will get a crash course this week on Canada's oil sands in a series of private meetings quietly orchestrated by President Barack Obama's point man in Ottawa.

The meetings will focus on climate change, the oil sands and the Canadian energy industry. They come at a crucial time in relations between the United States and Canada, its top energy supplier, and as Washington considers approval of a landmark cross-border pipeline project.

Ms. Pelosi, the powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives - and a champion of environmental causes - will meet with at least three premiers, Canada's Environment Minister, four top environmentalists, two first nations leaders and five titans of Canada's energy industry on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, sources told The Globe and Mail.

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The invitation-only sessions were co-ordinated by the American ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, who is a close confidant of Mr. Obama, and will be hosted at his embassy.

"We come to learn and listen at a time where the debate in Canada continues over oil sands and the future of energy security in North America," Ms. Pelosi said in a statement Tuesday.

The talks come two months after a Michigan oil spill involving a pipeline belonging to Calgary-based Enbridge, and as the U.S. State Department considers approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry additional Canadian oil sands bitumen to the U.S. It's a major project that has pitted Americans who crave a secure energy source against environmentalists who oppose carbon-intensive oil sands mining.

Throughout her meetings, Ms. Pelosi, a Democrat, will hear from the oil sands' most vigorous opponents and defenders alike.

"I'm pleased she's doing so," said Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who will attend one meeting and expects a "robust" range of opinion. "You don't get excellence in public policy unless you talk to people."

Ms. Pelosi will also be accompanied by Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and one of Congress's most outspoken environmentalists.

She'll also attend the G8 Speakers' meetings in Ottawa, beginning Thursday.

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"I anticipate that it will be a very constructive meeting. One of the things that defines our economic success as a country is our strong energy relationship with the United States," added Mr. Prentice.

While he will make a pitch for Quebec's "additional hydro capacity," it's clear discussion will be dominated by the oil industry.

"The primary thing they've flagged for us that they want to talk about is the oil sands," said Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental think tank.

Wednesday's dinner meeting will include Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, Quebec Premier Jean Charest, and Mr. Prentice. Other unidentified premiers have been invited.

Early Thursday morning, Ms. Pelosi will meet Mr. Raynolds, David Suzuki Foundation CEO Peter Robinson, who called it a "very unique opportunity"; Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence; and Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. All four oppose unmitigated oil sands expansion. They'll be joined by at least two unidentified first nations leaders.

Also on Thursday, she'll meet separately with Canadian energy leaders whose companies are collectively worth more than $100-billion. They include Suncor Energy chief executive Rick George, Enbridge pipelines chief executive Pat Daniel, Hydro-Quebec chief executive Thierry Vandal, ConocoPhillips Canada president Joe Marushack and Hal Kvisle, the recently retired head of TransCanada Pipelines, sources told The Globe and Mail.

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ConocoPhillips confirmed that Mr. Marushak will take part; the other companies did not comment.

"They're people that are a little hard not to take seriously," one industry source said. "They have a lot of presence and a lot of substance and they're really straight-shooters."

For Canada's energy industry, which is struggling against a barrage of environmental criticism and the threat of punitive legislation in the U.S., the meeting is welcome face-time with a powerful lawmaker.

"One shouldn't expect that there's going to be a landmark change as a result of this meeting," cautioned Chris Seasons, the president of Devon Canada, who chairs the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "But it is very encouraging, in that it's been difficult to engage with some of the senior membership in Washington - and I certainly think Nancy Pelosi is one of the key players in that government."

Mr. Stelmach said he'll frame the oil sands as a safe source of energy with an improving environmental record. Mr. Prentice called it an "important strategic Canadian resource."

"Our goal there is to appeal to her sense of reason, to communicate very clearly that we are continuing to be focused on environmental improvements in developing the oil sands," said Mr. Stelmach, who has been under fire since last week after the release of a pair of peer-reviewed studies that show pollution levels and bird deaths are higher than the government has reported.

Such studies will surely be brought to Ms. Pelosi's attention.

"It's an important moment and a critical issue, and she has been a real leader on the issue of clean energy," said Mr. Smith of Environmental Defence. "We're very grateful she's taking the time to get a perspective."

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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