Mr. Stelmach goes to Washington

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, facing accusations at home that he is lying down for environmental critics, fought to defend the oilsands Friday in one of the most influential newspapers in the United States.

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, facing accusations at home that he is lying down for environmental critics, fought to defend the oilsands Friday in one of the most influential newspapers in the United States.

In a $56,000, half-page ad in The Washington Post, Stelmach reminded Americans that the oilsands remain one of the most reliable, cost-effective sources of energy from a province that is working to reduce the resulting pollution.

“A good neighbour lends you a cup of sugar. A great neighbour supplies you with 1.4 million barrels of oil per day,” Stelmach stated in the ad on page four of the front section of the newspaper. “Let’s work together to develop a North American energy solution that is realistic and secure.”

Stelmach was unavailable for comment. His spokesman, Jerry Bellikka, said it was money well spent.

“Any time you can get that kind of exposure in one of the biggest papers in the United States on a huge long weekend with the kind of readership they’ve got, and with all the spin-off publicity, we think it’s coming back to us manyfold,” said Bellikka.

The Post delivers five million newspapers a week to homes, businesses and newsstands.

The letter was written to address the controversy surrounding the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which is to run from Alberta through Saskatchewan, then down to the American Midwest.

The line is projected to ship an extra 1.1 million barrels of oil a day to the U.S., with output coming from the sprawling oilsands in Alberta’s northeast corner.

But this week, 50 members of Congress asked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to put the project on hold because of concerns over what the resulting increase in oilsands production might do to the environment.

President Barack Obama’s administration has the ultimate authority, given it must approve the pipeline crossing state boundaries. A State Department decision on the permits is expected this fall.

U.S. lawmakers are weighing the arguments of environmental critics such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which single out the oilsands as a particularly pernicious polluter.

They note oilsands operations involve some strip mining, use large amounts of freshwater in processing, leave behind massive inland lakes of toxic sludge and chemical waste, and pump out greenhouse gases.

Stelmach, in The Post letter, says recent studies indicate that the oilsands are no better or worse than conventional operations on greenhouse gases. He said Alberta is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“In 2009, Alberta was the largest supplier of crude to the U.S.,” the letter reads. “When considered in the context of other leading suppliers of crude, including Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq, Angola, and Algeria, the security benefits of oil from Alberta are clear.”

Stelmach’s government has been fighting a public relations battle over the oilsands for years.

The National Audubon Society, National Geographic magazine and celebrity activists like filmmaker James Cameron have questioned whether the polluted land and water is worth the oil that lies waiting to be recovered in the sub-surface sand.

On the other side, leader Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance — the main political rival to Stelmach’s Tories — has accused Stelmach of letting special-interest groups control the agenda and successfully paint Alberta as an enviro-villain.

“What does the government do? They don’t challenge these groups,” Smith told cheering supporters at the party’s annual general meeting earlier this week. “They don’t articulate our province’s powerful defence. Well we will.”

Bellikka dismissed Smith’s concerns.

“The Energy Department has spent a lot of time and effort over the last several years to produce videos, brochures, Web information and all sorts of other products to talk about oilsands and spread the news around the world,” he said.

“If Danielle Smith hasn’t read that, well I guess she’s not as current as she thinks.”

Opposition NDP Leader Brian Mason said Stelmach has his priorities out of order. He said if Alberta is going to ship more oil south, Stelmach should live up to his leadership campaign promise to process it in Canada first, thereby creating more jobs here rather than in the United States.

“We need to pace extraction, act with environmental integrity, and ensure these jobs stay in Alberta,” said Mason in a news release.

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace said government spending on oilsands promotional campaigns continues to rise while money spent on environmental monitoring falls.

“It’s time the province lives up to its environmental rhetoric and starts dealing with the mounting problems associated with a toxic tarsands industry rather than just denying them,” said Hudema in a news release.

Stelmach’s ad was originally supposed to run as an op-ed piece. That was rejected by the The Post because the newspaper thought it was going to address larger cross-border energy issues.

“No complaints,” said Bellikka. “The newspaper has the right to choose what they want to put in the editorial. We just decided it was important enough to be in the paper, so we bought an ad.”

He said the exact cost was $55,779.99.