This is oil country.
Beneath the peat bogs and boreal forests in the northern part of this Canadian province are among the largest oil reserves in the world. Canadians have been getting it out of the prairies for over 100 years and piping much of it to the United States, which imports more oil from Canada than anywhere else.
But President Obama's denial of a permit for an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas that has been worked on for years has angered many here who claim that the U.S. environmental lobby is harming their livelihoods without scientific basis.
They even accuse it of illegally assisting Canadian environmental groups and say it's time to scrap plans to sell more oil to America and step up efforts to redirect the pipeline to the Pacific Coast and energy-hungry markets overseas.
"You've got a friendly source of oil from a friendly country," says welder Rob Tessier after lunching at the Pipeline Alley Cafe in Nisku. "If you don't want it, we'll send it to an Asian market."
Environmental groups say it's time for Canada to reassess its exploitation of its energy resources. They say oil pipelines are encroaching on sensitive lands and are improving access to oil when the world should be putting more effort into solar power and other forms of renewable energy.
Canada must stop "putting all our eggs in one basket," says Merran Smith director of Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada.
Canadians pride themselves on taking full advantage of their energy resources to create jobs while ensuring the protection and beauty of natural surroundings Canada is known for. But as the environmental movement gains influence in the United States, Canada is feeling the effects.
Obama's denial of the Keystone XL project has set politicians against each other and provoked heavy criticism of the local environmental groups.
Workers in Nisku, an industrial center where plants manufacture pipes for the petroleum deposits, are especially bewildered given that the southern leg of the pipeline from Cushing, Okla., to the Texas Gulf coast had already been approved.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the approval of Keystone XL a "no-brainer." Stunned by the project's denial, he is pushing for a "Northern Gateway" pipeline to direct Canadian oil to Asia.
"Certain people in the United States would like to see Canada be one giant national park for the northern half of North America."
He has an ally in U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who wants Keystone to go forward to create jobs in the United States.
The ire of the pro-pipeline people has focused on the alleged nefarious influence from the south on Canada's environmentalists. In the past, U.S. groups and foundations primarily donated funds to Canadian groups for preservation efforts, such as protecting old-growth forests, said Vancouver researcher Vivian Krause.
But in recent years U.S.-based groups such as the U.S. Tides Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have been trying to prevent oil production in Canada, she says.
"This is a story of American interference in Canada under the guise of charity," says Krause.
While the U.S. Department of the Interior has pleased environmental groups by reducing the number of energy leases and permits allowed on federal lands, Canada's minister of natural resources is outraged that groups are trying to stop oil development here.
Minister Joe Oliver accused opponents of the Northern Gateway of taking "funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interest." And it's not just politicians who are assailing environmentalists.
A group dubbed "Ethical Oil" highlights how Canadian oil is produced under stringent legal and environmental standards developed to ensure protection of wildlife and pristine nature. Ethical Oil's Jamie Ellerton also contrasts Canadian oil from that of the Persian Gulf and Venezuela, two of the biggest oil exporters to the USA, pointing out that those countries are known to fund anti-American activity and are regularly criticized for abusing human rights.
"If you care about human rights and peace buy oil from Canada instead of propping up tyrants," Ellerton says.
But environmental groups in Canada say the foreign money backing them represents a recognition that the problems associated with fossil fuels cross borders. This, they say, is especially true of the oil in Alberta.
Alberta's Athabasca oil sands, which are the largest oil fields in Canada, consist of heavy crude oil mixed with sand, clay and water beneath 54,000 square miles of coniferous forest and bogs.
The oil is so thick that it must be heated or diluted to flow.
Environmentalists have charged that the energy from oil sands, which they call "tar sands," is more corrosive and thus a higher risk of causing pipeline leaks. The risk of leaks was illustrated in 2010 when 20,000 barrels leaked from a Canadian pipeline near Michigan's Kalamazoo River, and BP took weeks to stop a leak of close to 5 million barrels of oil from an ocean drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
"It brought very much to the forefront in American and Canadian minds the whole environmental issue around transporting crude oil," says Calgary economist Todd Hirsch.
But proponents say no drilling is 100% safe and that Canadian companies have a good track record of preventing leaks and cleaning them up when they occur. The days of ducks landing in tailings ponds and emerging tarred are done, oil workers say.
"It's way cleaner than it used to be," says Darrell Walters, a former worker in the oil sands. "For waste, you used to dig a hole. Now you haul it out."
Environmentalists also object to more oil production because it means less solar or wind energy, they say, and that means more risk of global warming from the burning of carbon fuels into the atmosphere.
Calgary author and journalist Andrew Nikiforuk questions the pace and scale at which companies are exploiting oil sands that carry "too much of a carbon liability."
"We have a serious case of climate-change denial" in Canada, Nikiforuk says.
That dovetails with the claims of U.S. environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, which seeks to stop more oil production in Canada to the USA.
"If expansion of tar sands goes unchecked, it will be impossible to reach our goals to reduce global-warming pollution, and will have serious impacts for both people and wildlife," it stated.
Oil companies are fighting back.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers issued a report saying the carbon footprint of oil sands petroleum -- measured by greenhouse gases emitted in the extraction, processing and use -- has shrunk by about 1% per year in the past 20 years and is increasingly equivalent to conventional oil.
"To continue to make it sustainable and acceptable worldwide, we recognize that environmental performance is the foundation on which you have to do that," says Greg Stringham, CAPP's vice-president oil sands and markets.
The push-back comes as the world's leading climate data center in Britain issued a report that some scientists say shows global warming stopped 16 years ago.
Professor Judith Curry, head of the climate science department at Georgia Tech, told the Daily Mail newspaper the data confirm the existence of a "pause" in warming. Professor Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, told the Mail that 16 years is too short a period from which to draw conclusions.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government has decided to take a more forceful approach with critics.
The federal government is allocating money for Canada Revenue Agency auditors to investigate charitable groups, including those involved with the environment. Charities here are prohibited from being involved in partisan politics and limited in trying to influence public-policy decisions.
"Tides Canada engages in impermissible political activities," according to Ethical Oil.
But the environmentalists say the oil industry is bankrolled by foreign investment, so why should they not be? Smith says allegations that Canada environmentalists are being manipulated by colleagues to the south are a mere distraction.
"Pipelines are a front-page story here every week," Smith says. "It's seen as a witch hunt."
Most Popular Stories
- Bently Creates Alabama Small Business Commission
- Is Alibaba's IPO Price a Fairytale?
- Kardashian: Kanye Never Told Fan in Wheelchair to Stand Up
- Los Angeles Angels Clinch Playoff Spot
- U.S. Tobacco Growers Lose Last of Price Supports
- CalPERS Pulls Out of Hedge Funds
- U.S. Producer Prices Held Steady in August
- Sanctions Push Russian Ruble to Historic Low
- Scottish Leaders Scramble for Votes on Independence
- When to Say No to Investors, Yes to Mentors