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Canada's new representative in Washington Rob Merrifield at the International Transport Forum 2010 in Leipzig, Germany. (Photo: International Transport Forum)

Alberta's Tar Sands Lobbyist: We're Just One 'Devastating Lac-Mégantic Experience' Away from Keystone Approval

New envoy to Washington hopes to convince Obama it's "in the best interest of America to approve Keystone"

Deirdre Fulton

The Alberta tar sands have a new man in Washington.

Alberta MP Rob Merrifield announced on Wednesday he was resigning his seat in parliament to serve as Alberta’s envoy to D.C., where he will focus on gaining approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, among other issues. The appointment is an effort by Alberta Premier Jim Prentice "to get Alberta's resources to key markets," CBCNews reported.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Merrifield—who already has extensive contacts in D.C. from his previous role as a representative in Washington for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government—revealed what he thinks is required to sway American support toward Keystone approval:

Q: What will it take to get Keystone XL approved?

A: Two things. Three more votes in the Senate…

Q: Three? Not four or two?

A: Three [Democrats]. We’re only three short. And it will take a potential—which is devastating—Lac-Mégantic experience in America. [That] would tip it and the Democrats would have no choice and would bail on the President on this one. We’re encouraging [pipeline approval]. We hope the president will assess this and feel the pressure and understand this is in the best interest of America to approve Keystone. So we’ll keep making our case.

The Lac-Mégantic disaster to which Merrifield referred occurred in July, 2013 when an unattended 74-car freight train carrying Bakken formation crude oil ran away and derailed, resulting in the fire and explosion of multiple tank cars. The derailment killed 47 people.

Environmentalists have repeatedly pushed back against the idea that oil-by-rail accidents mean we should build more pipelines to transport fossil fuels.

"[T]he recent spate of rail accidents and pipeline leaks and spills doesn’t provide arguments for one or the other," Canadian scientist David Suzuki wrote earlier this year. "Instead, it indicates that rapidly increasing oil and gas development and shipping ever greater amounts, by any method, will mean more accidents, spills, environmental damage—even death. The answer is to step back from this reckless plunder and consider ways to reduce our fossil fuel use."

Suzuki continued:

If we were to slow down oil sands development, encourage conservation and invest in clean energy technology, we could save money, ecosystems, and lives—and we’d still have valuable fossil fuel resources long into the future, perhaps until we’ve figured out ways to use them that aren’t so wasteful. We wouldn’t need to build more pipelines just to sell oil and gas as quickly as possible, mostly to foreign markets. We wouldn’t have to send so many unsafe rail tankers through wilderness areas and places people live.

Friday marks six years since TransCanada began its approval process with the U.S. government to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Scientists and activists strongly oppose the project due to its public health and environmental risks. NASA’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, has called the pipeline “a fuse to the largest carbon bomb on the planet” and has said that if all the carbon stored in the Canadian tar sands is released into the earth’s atmosphere it would mean “game over” for the planet.

In an interview with the Nebraska Radio Network on Thursday, senior manager of American Petroleum Institute’s Refining and Oil Sands Program Cindy Schild criticized the long delay, saying: “There has been a small vocal minority that the Obama Administration has been catering to at the expense of national interest and the wishes of the vast majority of the American people. So, if President Obama is not going to exercise leadership and not look at the findings of his own State Department then we fully support Congress acting on this.”

Given the controversial nature of the debate, no one expects any developments until after the November elections.

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