EDMONTON - Last week 30 activists scaled a security fence at France's largest oil refinery, near La Havre. Inside, they clambered up towers and unfurled banners. Their message, roughly translated, was this: Get out of the oilsands; Get out of Alberta.
The refinery's owner, Total S.A., has been considering a multibillion-dollar expansion of their oilsands holdings. The CEO of the company's Canadian division said this week a decision would come within months.
After years of Canadian campaigns, activists and green organizations are increasingly targeting hearts and minds in the United States, where most of Alberta's oil is sold, and Europe, where many large oilsands investors are based.
So far, their efforts have been mixed. In Europe, where the public has largely accepted the reality of climate change, the oilsands are an occasional, if not prominent, political issue. But in the United States, where the domestic debate is focused on their own legislation, even many climate activists are only peripherally aware of the sands.
"Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of Americans are totally unaware," said Edward Maibach, a professor at George Mason University and director of the school's Centre for Climate Change Communication.
"Coverage has been light. Public awareness of it has been lighter," said Bud Ward, the editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. Ward said he reads thousands of stories about global warming a year and only rarely comes across pieces about the oilsands.
Even among what Ward calls the "climate change literati" Alberta oil is a not top priority.
"The two big things that are really taking up attention are the climate talks in Copenhagen in December and the Clean Energy bill in the U.S. Congress," said Jonathan Hiske, a staff writer with Grist, a Seattle-based green issues magazine. "So 95 per cent of strategizing is geared toward making those things successful."
The mainstream debate about American dependence on foreign oil is more about the Middle East and Venezuela than it is about Alberta, said Hiske.
"There are huge environmental costs coming from the tarsands," he said. "But it doesn't have the same level of human rights abuses and social costs."
Rightly or wrongly, the European public is viewed as more receptive than the Americans to the anti-oilsands message, and the European oil giants more vulnerable to public pressure.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Greenpeace has identified those companies as the most vulnerable link in the tarsands," said Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary journalist who has written extensively about the issue.
Greenpeace Nordic has already targeted Norway's state-owned Statoil, pressuring them to withdraw their $2-billion stake in the sands. The campaign even became an issue in Norway's recent election, with the main opposition parties vowing to pull out of Alberta if they won. (They lost.)
B.P. in the U.K. and Shell in the Netherlands should expect similar campaigns, said Nikiforuk.
"I think what Greenpeace has started now is only the beginning of a bigger movement against the oilsands and the oil companies," said Claude Turmes, a Green Party member of the European Parliament from Luxembourg. Turmes said the Greens and other parties have been working on legislation that would prevent European companies from investing in the oilsands or from shipping oilsands fuel to Europe.
"The pressure against oilsands is just starting," he said.
Not everyone, though, believes the campaign will pay dividends.
"They're quite used to this kind of opposition around the world, these companies, aren't they?" said Andrew Clark said, a New York-based business correspondent for London's Guardian newspaper.
Clark said there would likely have to be a legitimate business rationale for any of the oil giants to pull out of Alberta. "As far as I can see they (the oil companies) only tend to act when commercial and environmental issues coincide."
Nor is the pressure anything new. Shell, for one, has major operations in Nigeria, where workers are routinely kidnapped and equipment bombed.
"A few people waving placards in Alberta," Clark said, "are not likely to push them off their stools."