Oil sands on agenda for Obama's Canada visit: Harper

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with western Canadian business leaders in Calgary, Alberta, January 13, 2009. REUTERS/Todd Korol

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada’s oil sands, a vast potential oil source that critics say comes at a big environmental cost, will be on the agenda when Barack Obama visits Canada on his first foreign trip as U.S. president, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Tuesday.

Harper told a Calgary radio station that he has been in touch with officials from Obama’s administration even as the president-elect prepares for his inauguration next Tuesday.

In the interview with CHQR, Harper said environmental concerns and the need for clean, secure energy will be top priorities when Obama visits.

“We will be making the point ... of saying we want to work together with the United States on environmental and energy issues,” he said.

“To be frank on the oil sands, we’ve got to do a better job environmentally. We hear a lot of pressure on that,” Harper said. “At the same time, the development of these things is pretty important, in our judgment, to North American energy security.”

No date has been set for Obama’s visit to Canada.

Canada’s oil sands consist of huge deposits of heavy crude oil mixed with sand and clay in the province of Alberta and represent the biggest oil reserves outside of Saudi Arabia.

Oil sands production averaged 1.25 million barrels per day in 2006. Canada accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. imports of crude and oil products.

Critics point to the large amount of natural gas burned to process the sands into synthetic oil, resulting in major greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the production of waste water and the destruction of boreal forests that are habitats for migrating birds.

Writing by Alden Bentley; Editing by Eric Walsh