Not any more

Tories seek oilsands allies in Ontario PR blitz

In Canada on September 2, 2010 at 12:54

It’s the oil belt meets the rust belt.

Premier Ed Stelmach is sending three of his senior ministers to southern Ontario this month to trumpet the oilsands’ economic importance to that province’s manufacturing sector and affected communities.

Energy Minister Ron Liepert, Environment Minister Rob Renner and Intergovernmental Relations Minister Iris Evans — along with senior oil and gas officials — will also highlight efforts to clean up the ecological footprint of oilsands development.

It’s part of a multimillion-dollar campaign to improve Alberta’s image and that of the oilsands.

The tour comes at a critical time for the provincial government and the oilpatch, which are reeling from targeted attacks by environmental groups, corporations and politicians both in Canada and the U.S.

"This opportunity will give us a little more insight into the way people are viewing what Alberta is doing," Evans said in an interview. "We’re not there to brag about (the oilsands). We’re there to say this is a great resource not only for Canada, but for the globe."

The trip to southern Ontario will include a stop in Toronto on Sept. 21 to meet with manufacturers looking to capitalize on the clean technology push in the oilsands, the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world next to Saudi Arabia.

The next day will see the ministers tour through yet-to-be-named communities speaking to people directly employed by oilsands-related manufacturing jobs, while extolling the billions of dollars in spinoff benefits to other sectors of the Ontario economy.

"We’re going out there to the smaller communities because it’s really the bread basket of the manufacturing and production centre," she added.

A 2009 report from the Canadian Energy Research Institute estimated that Ontario will benefit more than any other province outside of Alberta from oilsands development over the next quarter-century, and is forecast to reap $55 billion in economic activity, tens of thousands of jobs and billions in federal tax revenue.

While the Stelmach government puts the finishing touches on the public relations off ensive, it increasingly finds itself under attack for the environmental toll of oilsands development.

The Rethink Alberta campaign has urged international tourists not to visit Alberta, while a new report released this week said the oilsands industry is polluting provincial waters with toxic concentrations of metals.

And the premier recently wrote to the CEOs of four major companies — the Walgreens drugstore chain, Levi Strauss, The Gap and Timberland — to clarify what he says is misinformation about the environmental impact of fuel derived from oilsands.

Political observers said the Alberta government’s push into Ontario communities to tout the oilsands is laudable, but is unlikely to generate new support for oilsands development.

"(It) will have roughly the equivalent of Quebec or Ontario cabinet ministers going into rural Alberta or urban Alberta to tout the virtues of the gun registry," quipped University of Toronto political scientist Nelson Wiseman.

"What the Alberta government is doing is perfectly sensible, perfectly reasonable — it just isn’t going to have much impact."

But Ontario Economic Development Minister Sandra Pupatello said the tour is a great opportunity for oilsands developers and clean technology companies to forge business relationships that will produce both environmental and economic benefits.

The technology can be used to reduce carbon emissions from oilsands development, clean up tailings ponds and expedite reclamation, she noted.

"This is an opportunity for a whole new market within our own country," Pupatello said. "It could be the perfect marriage."

Alberta’s opposition parties, however, believe the province’s public relations efforts could prove pointless unless the government and industry improve their environmental vigilance.

"I don’t think it’s a bad thing when our government gets out and tries to promote Alberta business," said NDP Leader Brian Mason. "What I object to is when they just put their head in the sands about serious environmental problems and expect the rest of the world to take them at face value."

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith believes the government’s public relations efforts on the oilsands are "small and unfocused."

"Every little bit" of communication can help, Smith said, although she argued the government must be a greater champion of the environmental improvements and technologies being adopted by the oilpatch.

jfekete@theherald.canwest.com

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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