U.S. knowledge of Alberta oil sands growing: former ambassador

'There has been a major reset,' David Wilkins says

December 01, 2012

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Alberta is well on its way to being a major energy global force. The fruits of Alberta’s labors are evident as more of the oil and natural gas produced by the province reaches consumers from America to Asia.

Alberta energy assets played prominently in the recently concluded race for the White House. In fact, while issues like acid rain and the North American Free Trade Agreement may have served as campaign fodder in years past, I cannot recall a United States presidential race where the focus stayed on Canada so intensely, for so long, as it did in the 12-month lead-up to the November election.

Canada has demonstrably proven this past year that it does not need to rely solely on the U.S.

While the Keystone XL pipeline in large part provided the spark for America’s national energy discussion, it certainly did not encompass the whole of it. From debate halls and rallies in cities large and small, Americans heard about Alberta’s oil and how much of it the U.S. imports; how Alberta oil fits into a strategic North American energy security plan, and how the fuel we get from Canada is second only to domestic drilling.

Americans had been used to hearing that our country’s energy security is being held hostage by the various global bad actors. But over the course of this past year, there has been a major reset here in the U.S. More Americans than ever before understand that our No. 1 foreign supplier of oil is Canada. They understand that when it comes to protecting the environment, Canada is supremely responsible, and they see clearly how foolhardy it is to reject Alberta crude while we continue to rely on energy from hostile, unstable and unethical sources.

President Obama made a calculated political decision to appease his base by taking Keystone XL off his plate until after the election when he would no longer be held directly accountable to voters for his decision.

With Obama initiatives like a sweeping cap-and-trade bill going nowhere, the president needed to give his most strident environmental supporters a tangible symbol that he still shared their concerns. Keystone XL became that symbol and so despite it being a “no-brainer” the president denied it.

Conventional wisdom on both sides of the border holds that Obama will green-light the project early in his second term.

I truly hope this is the case, but I am less optimistic, and here’s why: Immediately after Barack Obama was projected the winner on election night, activists blasted out a press release organizing a Keystone XL protest in Washington, D.C.

They continue to bang the same drum that this one pipeline represents an environmental disaster and must be stopped at all cost. My concern is that while the president started this year rejecting the Keystone XL because of politics, he will begin this New Year on the same note, but for a different reason. Obama now has nothing to lose in aggressively pursuing his vision for the U.S., and that has never included facilitating America’s access to fossil fuels.

Whatever the president’s decision, Canada has demonstrably proven this past year especially that it does not need to rely solely on the U.S. The proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, and proposals to export liquefied natural gas from Canada’s West Coast demonstrate a shift from Canadian pipelines running south to the U.S., to pipelines looking west to Asia.

Alberta has taken one big step to advance its energy ambitions – it’s searching for new markets to which to sell its oil and gas. I think the biggest challenge to Alberta becoming a global energy player in the next few years will be to stay committed to telling its story and not allowing radical rhetoric to go unanswered. The facts are clearly on Alberta’s side. The economic benefits of the oil sands – especially to the U.S. – and the technological advances in oil sands production represent a wonderful success story in which Alberta can and should take much pride in sharing.

David H. Wilkins served as United States Ambassador to Canada from 2005-2009.

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