Canadian diplomats defend oilsands at Maine municipal meetings

Canadian consular officials have intervened three times to defend Alberta's oilsands at municipal meetings in the U.S. state of Maine in the last eight days.

Boston Consul General Pat Binns made a presentation on a Portland city council resolution

Protesters march onto the Maine State Pier in Portland on Jan. 26, 2013 to attend a rally against the possibility of oilsands oil being piped from Canada across northern New England to Portland, Maine. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald/Associated Press )

Canadian consular officials have intervened three times to defend Alberta's oilsands at municipal meetings in the U.S. state of Maine in the last eight days.

On Jan. 29, Aaron Annable, consul in charge of foreign policy and diplomatic services at the Canadian Consulate in Boston, addressed a meeting hosted by Windham Town Council. The meeting was called to hear from Environment Maine, a state environmental group, which is concerned that the Montreal-Portland pipeline will be reversed so it can carry oilsands bitumen from Alberta to the deep-sea port on the Maine coast.

"We've been doing a lot of organizing in towns along the pipeline route and just in the last week or so have started to see in our efforts the Canadian government and the oil industry really starting a full-court press," Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, told the CBC.

Annable also attended a debate on an anti-oilsands resolution at a special town meeting in Bethel, Maine on Jan. 30, according to Foreign Affairs.

On Jan. 23, New England Consul General Pat Binns appeared before Portland city council to speak to a resolution presented to council. The resolution would direct the city manager to no longer purchase oilsands-derived fuel for city vehicles. While Binns did not come out in opposition to the resolution, he did outline the benefits of oilsands oil and Maine's relationship with Canada.

"I truly hope the committee will look at this matter further. We are each other's best customers. We are your closest friends and strongest ally. And I would hope that we can continue to work together responsibly," said Binns, the former Conservative Premier of Prince Edward Island, at the council meeting. Council later voted to return the matter to committee.

Unusual guest, unusual subject

Portland officials agreed that it was strange to be addressed by a foreign diplomat on a municipal matter.

"You could say it was unusual but the topic was unusual as well," remarked Nicole Clegg, spokesperson for the city of Portland. She added that this was the first time council had ever discussed oilsands oil.

At both meetings, the consular officials appeared in conjunction with oil industry association and pipeline company officials. In particular, Larry Wilson, the president and CEO of Portland Montreal Pipe Line, made a presentation in Windham and Portland.

PMPL maintains good relations with residents and towns along the pipeline route, said Ted O'Meara, a PMPL spokesperson.

"It really isn't anything different than what they've been doing all along in all the years that they've been operating", O'Meara said. PMPL's dual pipeline opened for business in 1941.

The company said it currently has no plans to reverse the pipeline but is exploring all opportunities including, but not limited to, a reversal that might result in the shipping of Alberta bitumen.

As for the Canadian consular presence, O'Meara isn't surprised.

"Obviously, the Canadian government has an interest in this, as well. So, I think it just lends another voice to the discussion that's going on."

A Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said Canada's consul generals across the U.S. participate in events "to highlight the value of state-level trade with Canada."

"An important part of the role of the consul general is to promote and defend the interests of Canada abroad," Barbara Harvey said in an email to CBC News Friday afternoon. "The consul general's participation in these specific events is part of his and our ... wider mandate to promote Canada as a secure energy supplier to the U.S."

Harvey added that similar events are likely to be held in the New England states in the future and Canadian officials will continute to participate "where it is appropriate and feasible to do so."

On Jan. 12, the town of Casco, Maine, passed a non-binding resolution banning oilsands oil from passing through their town.