Harper promotes oil sands and Keystone XL in New York

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Stephen Harper in New York with Council of Foreign Relations

Stephen Harper may not have worn his cowboy hat as he spoke to America’s foremost think-tank in New York on Thursday, but he still had Alberta written all over him.

Harper participated in a question and answer session with the Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke broadly about how Canada escaped unscathed from the financial crisis, and how it was trying to grow Canada's economy.

He then began talking about the oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline, noting that despite real environmental concerns, the oil sands' impact was "almost nothing" from a global perspective.

Harper noted that the “only real immediate environmental issue here" is whether to increase the flow of oil from Canada via pipeline or via rail, and said if the pipeline option is rejected, it will end up being rail, which poses more environmental challenges. 

He said the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is still under regulatory process, and that "vigorous regulatory systems" are in place to examine environmental and economic issues around the oil sands. 

"We share the Copenhagen targets with the United States. We have the same targets and obviously constraining emissions in the oil sands is going to be important.  We’ve had a 25 percent reduction over the past decade or so in emission intensity out of the oil sands" said Harper.

Harper admitted Canada is grappling with the oil sands emissions issue, but claimed it's no worse than some other countries.

“The truth of the matter is heavy oil out of the oil sands, yes there are still emissions issues, but no more so than heavy crudes in other parts of the world, including Venezuela.”

He pointed out 40,000 US jobs are tied to the Keystone XL project, and says he "doesn't believe North America can afford to turn down" large oil sands projects such as Keystone XL. 

Asked by an audience member about Canada's pulling back from the Kyoto protocol and "nuanced" stance on climate change, Harper criticized the agreement for not including major polluters like China, and stressed the need for better technology to tackle carbon emissions. "That (technology) is what will allow us to square economic growth with climate change," he commented.

Taking a jab at environmental activists, he said "standing on a street corner and yelling" won't solve climate change, and that agreements such as Kyoto will "keep failing" until people realize that the issue needs a "serious" and "holistic" approach that takes national interests into account.

During the talk, which covered a wide range of issues, including Syria (he noted that "arming unnamed people" fighting the Assad regime is "extremely risky"), he stressed that Canada's economic growth potential is tied to its resource economy. 

Bad press for Canada's oil sands

New York hasn’t been much of a friend on that last issue. This is a town where its most influential newspaper, the New York Times, wrote an editorial on April 2, 2011 headlined “No to New Tar Sands Pipeline”. Six weeks ago it ran an Op-Ed piece headlined “The Tar Sands Disaster” and another Op Ed piece last week, “Game Over for the Climate”, slamming Canada for the Alberta tar sands.  Canada has been getting a lot of press in the Big Apple recently – but most of it is rotten.

And a new ominous milestone reached with the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reporting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has, for the first time, reached a high average daily level above 400 parts per million, this bad press might just get worse. 

Stephen Harper is the latest in a number of high ranking ministers to visit key US centers to counter that image, and promote Canada – and Alberta crude. 

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