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Growing battle over the implications of the ravenous U.S. hunger for Alberta’s ‘dirty oil’

TORONTO, Canada — The boom times are back at Alberta’s oil sands.
What environmentalists describe as one of the worst emitters of greenhouses gases on earth has shaken off the recession.

TORONTO, Canada — The boom times are back at Alberta’s oil sands.

What environmentalists describe as one of the worst emitters of greenhouses gases on earth has shaken off the recession. Its massive oil extraction projects now employ 27,700 workers — 3 percent more than the previous peak in 2008.

It’s a sign that the United States’ gluttonous appetite for the tar-like mix of bitumen and sand isn’t expected to subside any time soon. America, after all, is pretty much the only client for what President Barack Obama’s advisers once derided as Alberta’s “dirty” oil.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that when Nancy Pelosi visited Canada last week, lobbyists on both sides of the oil sands debate requested face time with the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Pelosi obliged. Accompanying her was Congressman Edward Markey, the Democratic chair of the House energy and environment subcommittee.

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The backdrop to their meetings at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa is a growing battle on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. It pits those who see oil sands development as the biggest single source of new greenhouse gases against those who see it as a secure source of oil and high-paying jobs.

What’s clear is that future development of the biggest oil deposit outside of Saudi Arabia depends largely on whether the U.S. continues to ravenously consume the product. (Plans are to increase the current daily production of 1.3 million barrels of oil to 3 million by 2015.)

Focusing the debate is a proposed 1,675-mile pipeline that would become the biggest conveyor of Alberta’s bitumen to the United States. TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline would disgorge 900,000 barrels a day to refineries in Houston and almost double the amount of tar sands oil the U.S. consumes daily.

Canadian authorities have approved the pipeline’s construction, but the U.S. State Department is still considering its impact.

Critics argue the pipeline would exponentially increase the environmental disaster underway in the wilderness of northern Alberta, where the bitumen deposits cover an area the size of Florida. Accessing the 175 billion barrels of proven oil reserves involves massive open-pit mining that moves mountains of soil, fells huge swaths of trees, sucks up rivers of fresh water and produces hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic sludge daily.

Coaxing a barrel of oil from the tar sands creates three times as much greenhouse gases as producing a barrel of conventional oil. It partly explains why Canada hasn’t come close to meeting the carbon emission targets of the Kyoto Protocol.

Recently, the environmental news got bleaker. Nine days before Pelosi’s meetings, a peer-reviewed study by a University of Alberta scientist found high levels of lead, mercury and other heavy metals in the Athabasca River system, which runs through the oil sands. That increased health concerns in the communities that depend on the river for drinking water.

At about the same, another peer-reviewed study found that the number of birds dying in the toxic tailings ponds produced by the extraction process is dozens of times higher than reported by the oil companies. This summer, the oil giant Syncrude Canada was found guilty of failing to deploy equipment that would have prevented the deaths of 1,600 birds that landed on one of its toxic ponds two years ago.

The bad news continued even as oil executives assured Pelosi and Markey they planned to improve their environmental records. Hours after the meeting, the Suncor oil company was charged with misleading the provincial government about pollution from one of its sites into the Athabasca River. Alberta-based Enbridge Inc. was then forced to shut a major oil pipeline because of a leak in Illinois. (Earlier this summer, another Enbridge pipeline caused a large oil spill in Michigan.)

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Both sides in the debate came out of separate meeting with Pelosi — widely considered an ally of environmentalists — claiming they received a sympathetic hearing. But the crowing from those who back oil sands development seemed particularly enthusiastic.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, a strong proponent of development, said Pelosi noted she wanted to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. “But she was very quick to say … she didn’t consider Canada foreign oil, so that was a positive statement,” he added.

Stelmach told the Calgary Herald newspaper he came out of the meeting with “the very strong opinion” that Pelosi isn’t interested in putting the brakes on oil sands development.

Pelosi issued a statement saying the meetings “confirmed that the United States and Canada share a strong commitment to addressing climate change and energy security.”

“We share much more than a border, and with respect to our energy future, we are in the same boat,” Pelosi said. “Our discussion focused on more than the oil sands issue; we discussed the need for aggressive research and development on renewable energy and conservation technology. Our mutual clean energy goals will drive innovation and create millions of jobs on both sides of the border.”

With U.S. mid-term elections just weeks away, it’s perhaps not surprising that Pelosi would be cautious about an issue often portrayed as involving America’s oil security. From a Canadian perspective, however, it’s getting harder to believe the U.S. would turn its back on Alberta’s bitumen, no matter how “dirty” the oil might be.