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Darryl Hincock, from South Brook, N.L., inspects his haul vehicle before starting his shift as a driver at the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine near Fort McMurray. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

Alberta has hired a team of consultants to improve the province's image in Washington ahead of climate-change talks.

The consultants, led by former Michigan governor James Blanchard and former Canadian diplomat Paul Fraser, will be paid $40,000 a month for their services. Blanchard is also a former U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Alberta's voice needs to be heard in the White House and Congress, Premier Ed Stelmach told supporters at a Progressive Conservative fundraising dinner in Calgary on Thursday night.

"Our Alberta office has been a great resource, making sure that Alberta is heard amid the competing voices in Washington politics. But this is a big job and we need to do more," he said.

"We can't rely on anyone else to tell our story.… Now, more than ever, Alberta needs accurate, timely information on U.S. policy initiatives that impact our province and its future prosperity."

Under a fair regulatory system, Alberta can supply responsibly produced, clean energy to help power an economic recovery, he said.

International attention on oilsands

Outside Stelmach's dinner, a small group of protesters dressed as waiters told reporters that "oiled duck" was on the menu, alluding to the death of 1,600 migrating ducks that landed on a tailings pond at Syncrude's Aurora oilsands site in late April 2008.

Syncrude faces one charge under the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and one charge under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act in relation to the duck deaths.

National Geographic also recently turned international attention toward the environmental impact of the oilsands with a 20-page article in its March issue that featured pictures of sludge-covered tailings ponds and the sprawling oilfields.

The Alberta government has called the article "fair" and indicated it appreciated that the author acknowledges the province's work to curb  carbon emissions.

By 2020, Alberta carbon emissions will level off. And by 2050, they'll decline to 15 per cent below their 2005 levels, according to the article.

Crucial fight for Alberta

Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal College, said the public relations campaign is a crucial one for Alberta.

"They want a very focused and intensive and informative campaign to get to the people who have the questions that have been raised in the media," she said.

Tom Huffaker, a vice-president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the province's decision to beef up its presence in Washington was a positive step.

"Given how important what happens on energy and climate policy is to Alberta, it obviously makes sense," he said.

But Mike Hudema, who works for Greenpeace in Edmonton, said the lobbyists will be paid by the province to greenwash the oilsands.

"The government really shouldn't be wasting half a million dollars to put more lobbyists in Washington, but should be putting that money towards putting Albertans back to work and building a green economy that would diversify our economy, making it much more stable."

Climate-change talks ahead

Canada has been battling a reputation as a purveyor of dirty oil in light of the Obama administration's push for the development of clean and green energy.

U.S. President Barack Obama will host a summit of world leaders in April to help forge a UN agreement on global warming. The April 27-28 summit, labelled by the White House as the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, will include 16 major economies.

World leaders will meet in Copenhagen in December in an effort to produce a UN treaty on climate change to replace the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Obama agreed to a clean energy dialogue during the president's visit to Ottawa in February. 

Environment Minister Jim Prentice has said Canada's environmental policies will mirror those of the Obama administration.

The Conservatives have said they plan to lower greenhouse gases by three per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, or 20 per cent from 2006 levels over that same period. Obama has established a similar goal of reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020.