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Ottawa Sit-In to Protest Federal Support of Oilsands

Trish Audette

Environmental groups are hoping to trigger what they call the "largest civil disobedience action in the history of Canada’s climate movement" Monday in Ottawa — a sit-in on Parliament Hill to protest federal government support of Alberta's oilsands.

“This isn’t about condemning anybody that works in the tarsands or oilsands industry. This is about presenting choices,” said Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema.

The Edmonton-based activist said he hopes people do not see the protest as an attack on Alberta, but as a bid for a “clean-energy economy.”

Monday’s action takes aim at Alberta’s oilsands as a whole, but the effort piggybacks on growing American and Canadian attention to the proposed $12-billion Keystone XL pipeline extension.

As U.S. lawmakers draw closer to deciding whether to approve the massive project, expected to eventually pump 900,000 barrels of raw bitumen daily from Hardisty, Alta., across nine states to refineries in Texas, the pipeline proposal has become a magnet for wider environmental and economic debate on Alberta’s oilsands production. Where environmental activists weigh in against bolstering fossil fuel development, Canadian unions and even former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed have raised questions about exporting jobs. Across the U.S., meanwhile, local organizations worry about backyard environmental issues — including worst-case scenarios for the pipeline’s impact on the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska.

“It’s been an interesting year, and yeah, it’s been challenging,” said Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, the Calgary-based company building the pipeline.

In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture that affected the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, however, Howard said it was no surprise to find the Keystone XL project in the cross-hairs.

“That changes how people look at an entire industry, not just a single project,” Howard said. “All we can do is point to our industry-leading safety and operating record as something we’re proud of.”

Despite industry assurances — and efforts by members of the Alberta government to intercede by meeting with their American counterparts — opposition to the project drew a range of activists to Washington, D.C. last month for a two-week protest during which about 1,250 people were arrested, including actresses Daryl Hannah, Margot Kidder and Tantoo Cardinal.

Hudema called the Washington action an inspiration for his and other organizations — including the Sierra Club, the Council of Canadians, the Polaris Institute and the Indigenous Environmental Network — which hope more than 100 people will meet in front of the House of Commons on Monday and then move in groups into the building, where they anticipate arrest. Hudema said he expects protesters will arrive from across Canada, including from Alberta.

“It’s more about the tarsands in general, but of course the pipelines are a big part” of the fight, Hudema said. “The pipelines are what are going to allow or prevent the tarsands from expanding (or) the damage from getting significantly bigger.”

Business observers aren’t so sure the protests will capture public imagination to the point where approval for the Keystone XL project stumbles, however — even in light of mass arrests.

“When they put their mind to it they can really put on a good show of force and make a strong statement,” said David MacLean, vice-president of the Alberta Enterprise Group. Since 2008, MacLean’s Edmonton-based umbrella group has taken a cross-section of business leaders and politicians to Washington to talk about and defend the oilsands.

“The debate is so many levels,” MacLean said, including the need for oilsands companies to improve their environmental records.

But also, he said, there is a public-relations battleground.

“Sometimes it means getting your hands dirty because this is a fight.”

And the province’s role in the fight has not gone unnoticed by members of industry or the protesters taking on bitumen extraction, its carbon footprint, tailings ponds and pipelines. Where business people applaud the efforts of ministers and provincial politicians to tell Alberta’s oil story in the United States and abroad, activists like Hudema accuse the government of having become a “mouthpiece” for the oilsands.

“I think industry has asked the government to make sure that we represent what’s true in Alberta and what we represent when we go to America is the Alberta story, which isn’t so much in defence of industry,” International and Intergovernmental Relations Minister Iris Evans said.

Since January, her department and the premier’s office have spent about $92,500 on missions to the U.S. to discuss Alberta-produced energy and build relationships.

Evans is hoping the next premier — to be selected by Progressive Conservatives on Oct. 1 — will visit Washington later this fall as Keystone XL hearings continue, to gauge impacts on residents along the proposed pipeline route.

“I guess you could characterize (protests) as certainly distractions on that front, but I don’t want to belittle their intent,” Evans said.

“I think we have to do our due diligence so that we understand what elements of truth exist in any kind of protest, and make sure that we’re well prepared to defend what we do in the most positive way.”

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