Minister sees hidden agenda behind oil sands foes

CALGARY (Reuters) - Some international groups behind campaigns opposing Canadian oil sands development are actually trying to erect trade barriers under the guise of protecting the environment, Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert said on Tuesday.

Ron Liepert, minister of energy for government of Alberta, gestures during the Oilsand Summit in Calgary, Alberta, March 23, 2010. REUTERS/Jack Cusano

Liepert, who has begun a communications push to sell the benefits of oil sands development to residents outside Alberta in the United States, declined to name “certain groups” aiming to block companies from boosting output from the unconventional resource.

“I’m not talking specifically the U.S., I’m talking internationally. The environmental agenda is being driven for reasons that are greater than just global warming,” Liepert said at the Reuters Canadian Oil Sands Summit in Calgary.

“This is another way to, behind the camouflage of environmental correctness, reestablish trade barriers.”

Last week, Liepert, who has announced lower royalties for conventional oil and gas production, told an industry group that he will work to make sure other North Americans know that many jobs and other economic benefits are dependent on a strong oil sands industry.

Part of that plan is to get teachers to tell that story in Alberta schools under the banner of “energy literacy.”

Alberta’s Conservative government is taking pains to counter campaigns by environmental groups that warn of the impact of oil sands development on air, water, land and local communities.

When pressed on who would want to put up trade barriers, he said only that “other agendas” were at work.

The government and oil sands producers are concerned that legislation at the U.S. federal and state levels could impose high levies on carbon, or other limits on exports. Canada is the largest oil supplier to the United States.

The “vast, vast majority” of Americans don’t care much where their oil comes from, he said.

“And why should they? As long as the factories are running and cars can fuel up, why would they be all that interested or concerned?”

Liepert takes the message on the road later this week, with plans to speak to investors and bank officials in New York and Toronto.

The greatest threat to Canadian exports to the United States may come from the state, not the federal, level, he said. California, for instance, has set a low-carbon fuel standard that has oil sands producers worried.

“My observation is that it starts in California and seeps eastward. If several states start to take action, you’re going to have many of the other states follow suit. In many ways, I think the state barriers are more of a threat than a national barrier.”

The recession, however, may have hampered lawmakers’ resolve to push forward with climate change legislation, especially after the fractious health care debate in the United States, giving the oil sands industry some breathing room, he said.

Liepert said he would not heed calls from environmental groups, such as the Pembina Institute, to impose a moratorium on approving new projects so the cumulative impacts of widespread development in northern Alberta can be studied and regulations made more stringent.

“My view is a moratorium is the first step toward getting things shut down,” he said, adding that he sees every year of a moratorium equaling one year of “zero production.”

Liepert, whose government has long said the market should dictate the paced of oil sands development, said he does not foresee conditions that would cause him to step in and slow things down. Self-discipline by oil sands companies should prevent a repeat of the overheated construction scene before the recession.

Addition reporting by Braden Reddall; Editing by Gary Hill