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."
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