Joe Oliver not backing down in Canada-EU battle over oilsands

Canada's natural resources minister is returning from Europe, continuing to hit back at the many critics of the oilsands.

Natural resources minister appears Saturday on The House to discuss European trip

Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver speaks during question period on March 9. Oliver has spent the past week in Europe lobbying against proposed changes to their emissions standards. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Canada’s natural resources minister continues to hit back against the many critics of Canada’s oilsands, including a European Union proposal to designate its oil as dirty.

In an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio’s The House, Joe Oliver said Canada’s first priority when it comes to the EU is to change proposed legislation from the 27-country bloc that would see crude oil from the oilsands fail new standards for greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's discriminatory, it's not based on science and it would potentially hurt Canada's ability to access markets for its resources," Oliver said in the interview.

"We will act if, as a last resort, there are no changes... we will look at all the alternatives and we may possibly take action before the [World Trade Organization]."

Oliver said the EU proposal has loopholes that would give a "free pass" to countries with higher emissions levels than Canada and he’d like to see it reviewed by a third party.

"Venezuelan heavy crude or oil coming from Russia, Nigeria or Angola has a process where they release gas... into the air or they burn it, and that would bring their numbers up," he said.

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"But under this directive, they're treated as if they have much lower emissions than Canada."

EU ambassador to Canada Matthias Brinkmann said Thursday whatever measures are adopted will be "non-discriminatory and science based and will stand the test at the WTO."

Tour of Europe ending

Rhetoric has recently been heating up around Oliver and the oilsands as he ends a tour through Israel, France, England and Belgium aimed at promoting the Canadian oil and gas industry.

A group of 12 scientists sent him a letter this week saying Canada is delaying the transition to an economy more reliant on alternative energy.

David Keith, a Canadian teaching public policy and engineering at Harvard University, said in the letter that the Canadian government needs to "grow up" in balancing development with climate change.

"We don't need these exaggerated claims, these insults flying around," Oliver said in response.

"They have a view that we can basically reduce significantly the production of the oilsands and, really, other hydrocarbons they seem to think that it's possible to wean ourselves from oil and just to move into an alternative energy... that is not realistic."

Oliver said the benefits of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada's oilsands to the Texas Gulf Coast include thousands of jobs and a reliable supply of oil for the United States, whose president is still deciding if he’ll approve the project.

A group of 150 Democrat donors sent U.S. President Barack Obama a letter of their own on Friday, urging him to reject Keystone XL because they said it would speed up the transition away from fossil fuels.

The Keystone XL project would extend TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone pipeline that carries oil from northern Alberta to refineries in the United States. (TransCanada Corp)

"The oilsands represent 0.01 per cent of global emissions," Oliver said. "That doesn't mean for a second that we don't have a responsibility as global citizens to do our part, but it means we should be working at the other 99.9 per cent as well."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scheduled to visit New York City next week to talk to American business leaders about Canadian oil, while Environment Minister Peter Kent is also scheduled to visit Europe.

Opposition worries about Oliver’s approach

The parliamentary secretary to the environment minister said on Friday’s Power & Politics on CBC that she is frustrated the oilsands debate is being framed as a clash of good versus evil.

"Both the United States, Canada and the entire world is still functioning on a carbon-based economy, so the question we should be asking is how do we develop that resource sustainably, how do we use it to transition to that economy?" said Michelle Rempel.

"When I hear that sort of tone in that letter, there’s an implication there that we somehow can’t do both," she said, referring to developing oil resources while working towards cleaner sources of energy.

The NDP’s natural resources critic Peter Julian said the rest of the world is watching Canada and seeing a reckless government.

"The Transportation Safety Board tells us since the Conservatives came to power the number of pipeline spills has actually gone up 2½ times. They’ve been incredibly irresponsible," Julian said on Power & Politics.

Liberal natural resources critic Marc Garneau said the government is being aggressive in resource development when it should be taking a constructive approach.

"Ultimately the Keystone pipeline will be good for Canada if it’s handled properly" he said Friday.

"The government unfortunately has taken a ‘bull in a china shop’ approach and now they’re getting a lot of backlash, they’re acting as though they don’t understand why."

Al Gore continues criticism

Former U.S. vice-president and climate change activist Al Gore has been saying the oilsands treat the Earth’s atmosphere like an open sewer, causing Oliver to respond that Gore is creating "a false impression."

In an interview airing on this weekend’s episode of The Sunday Edition, Gore responded by asking anyone who disagrees where he’s wrong.

"The sky looks like a vast and limitless resource, but the pictures brought back to us by the astronauts from space confirm what the scientists have long told us — it's a very thin layer of atmosphere, and we are filling it up as if it's an open sewer," Gore said.

Oliver’s interview airs on The House, starting Saturday at 9 a.m. EST on CBC Radio One.

You can hear Al Gore on The Sunday Edition, which airs Sunday at 9 a.m. EST.