For lack of another way to reach U.S. lawmakers wary of the "filthy" Canadian oil sands, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach's office bought a half-page advertisement in Friday's Washington Post championing its energy industry and a proposed pipeline that would reach down into the United States.
The ad, which cost $55,800, was purchased after the newspaper declined to run Mr. Stelmach's comments as an opinion piece, and is the latest in a string of efforts by the Stelmach government to support the lucrative oil sands.
The Premier expressed his support for TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry bitumen to the U.S. There, the bitumen would be upgraded, an energy-intensive process frequently criticized by environmental groups.
Last week, 50 members of the U.S. Congress signed a letter urging the U.S. State Department to block Calgary-based TransCanada's pipeline expansion because it would increase America's dependence on "tar sands" oil, which it called "filthy."
Mr. Stelmach sought to counter the message.
"Continuing to develop Alberta's oil sands has many tangible benefits to the U.S. The obvious benefit is that it provides the U.S. with access to a secure and reliable supply of energy," Mr. Stelmach wrote in the ad. "Improved access via projects like the Keystone XL pipeline will benefit the U.S. economically and allow your country to continue to receive oil from a country whose environmental and social goals are similar to yours."
He also discusses efforts to raise environmental standards in the oil sands, described as a "reliable and responsible energy producer." Canada produces about 12 per cent of oil used in the United States, more than any other country. The oil sands also produce about 4.6 per cent of Canada's carbon emissions, according to industry estimates.
The ad, largely in letter form, ran under the headline: "A good neighbour lends you a cup of sugar. A great neighbour supplies you with 1.4 million barrels of oil per day."
Jerry Bellikka, a spokesman for Mr. Stelmach, said the province first approached the Washington Post to run an op-ed. They agreed to consider it. When the province submitted the piece, the Post declined to print it, saying it was more about international relations than new policy initiatives.
"So, we figured, well, we need the exposure. We want to get the message out and we want to do it now, so we bought the ad," Mr. Bellikka said. "We're not downplaying the environmental issues, but we're also pointing out that we're making steps to deal with it."
The newspaper said it receives between 60 and 100 submissions per day. Mr. Stelmach's letter didn't make the cut.
"By necessity, just for reason of space, we have to turn down a lot of good columns," op-ed editor Autumn Brewington said.
The ad ran days after controversial comments by two veteran ministers in Mr. Stelmach's government, and a week after the oil sands' biggest producer, Syncrude Canada Ltd., was found guilty on two environmental charges after the deaths of 1,600 birds at one of its northern Alberta tailings ponds, a settling basin used while refining bitumen. (Syncrude and other companies refine the material in Alberta; others export raw bitumen to the U.S. for processing).
Energy Minister Ron Liepert said in Qatar that the trial was "highly overpublicized" and that there are "bigger issues" to deal with. Infrastructure Minister Ray Danyluk said in his rural Alberta riding that Syncrude was "the goat on that one" and that the incident "wasn't their [Syncrude's]fault, you know, per se."
The three efforts to defend the oil sands may signal a campaign being waged after the guilty verdict left the industry with a black eye.
"I thought the letter itself was unexceptional, not particularly enlightening, and more part of the low-grade PR [public relations]campaign that this government seems to think is sufficient," said Brian Mason, leader of the provincial New Democrat opposition. "We've been saying for years the government has to clean up the oil sands, not just say there's no problem."
Mr. Bellikka denied the assertion.
"The Premier wanted to send a letter. Quite frankly, the minister's comments were coincidental to that," he said. "There's not a co-ordinated approach to take the leash off people."
Mr. Mason opposes the pipeline because upgraders built within the province create jobs domestically.
"I don't think it's the medium, it's the message. And the message he's delivering is please steal our jobs," Mr. Mason said.
Wildrose Alliance MLA Guy Boutilier, a former Tory who represents the riding that includes the oil sands, lashed out against the ad saying the premier is "throwing gasoline on the fire" by not acknowledging the environmental work that needs to be done in the oil sands.
"The disdain by Ed Stelmach for Fort McMurray, the oil sands capital of the world, is unprecedented," said Mr. Boutilier, who Mr. Stelmach expelled from the PC party. "Their comments and actions are actually hurting the oil sands development, which is the bread and butter of my community."
Alberta already operates an office in Washington, aptly dubbed the Alberta Office, run by a former Tory cabinet minister, Gary Mar. Its mandate is to promote Alberta's policy interests in areas such as energy and the environment.