OTTAWA - Just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to the United States to win over hearts and minds on Canada's pipeline plans, his natural resources minister is wrapping up a similar tour in Europe by lobbing insults at oilsands critics.
In a conference call Friday from London, Joe Oliver dismissed suggestions that the government's transcontinental public-relations press on energy and the environment is a sign of desperation in Ottawa.
"I wouldn't characterize it as desperate," Oliver said of the recent barrage of federal emissaries travelling the globe to talk up Canada's oilsands in the face of projects like the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Rather, he said, it's oilsands opponents who are starting to sound panicky.
"It's pretty clear that opponents are getting desperate, hence the shrillness of their arguments, the hyperbole and the exaggeration that we're hearing from some sources."
European decision-makers are still in the midst of determining how they should word their fuel quality directive, which would favour low-carbon fuels and penalize crude from the oilsands for being high in carbon.
And their counterparts in the U.S. are expected to decide in the next few months whether to green-light Keystone XL, which would carry oilsands bitumen from Alberta all the way to refineries along the Gulf Coast.
The Conservatives see both decisions as crucial for market access for Canada's energy sector, and have ramped up their lobbying campaign accordingly. Environment Minister Peter Kent will be following in Oliver's footsteps to Europe next week, even as Harper addresses U.S. business leaders in New York City about the benefits of the oilsands and Canada's environment regime.
But environmentalists see the decisions on Keystone XL and the European fuel quality directive as pivotal in the fight against global warming.
A group of 150 major Democrat donors in the United States issued a letter Friday urging President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline in the name of fighting off climate change.
"As business leaders, philanthropists and supporters of your 2008 and 2012 campaigns, we write to urge you to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and to do everything in your power to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels and to clean energy sources," the letter reads.
At the same time, Mark Jaccard, one of Canada's leading energy economists, is about to take a European tour of his own — to denounce the federal government's penchant for pipelines at a time when they have no solid plan to reduce emissions from the oilsands.
Jaccard's arguments only serve to undermine Canadian and global prosperity, Oliver said, because they would result in a shortage of affordable energy.
"I think there are some people who really have a vision of the world which isn't realistic," he said.
"They would like to see the world powered by alternative energy. I think that would be great if it could be achieved, but it can't be entirely, or even to a majority extent."
The comments are only the latest in an aggressive stand by Oliver and others in the Harper government in favour of pipelines and improving market access for the oilsands. In the past month alone, Oliver has taken on a U.S. rocket scientist and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, calling their criticisms of the oilsands "inaccurate and exaggerated."
In an interview Friday, Jaccard said the government's campaign of aggression and name-calling is not winning it any respect.
"I feel betrayed as a Canadian," he said.
Jaccard said he has done research for and provided advice to governments of all political stripes, and has never viewed himself as an environmentalist. Rather, he is alarmed by scientific research that indicates fossil fuels are destroying the earth, as well as his own modelling, which tells him Canada won't be able to meet its 2020 target to reduce emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels.
"I have always worked as an academic, designing policies and helping governments. But I also believe I have a moral obligation to tell the truth."
If Harper really wanted to win the respect of decision-makers in Europe and the United States, he would lay out a plan that would halt growth in the oilsands, put a freeze on new pipelines, and show the rest of the world how to be a low-carbon economy, Jaccard said.
On Friday, Oliver reiterated that his government is committed to meeting the 2020 target, and that it believes that by regulating emissions in a sector-by-sector approach, the target will be reached.
But numerous number-crunchers have shown that Canadian governments would have to take major, additional measures even if their pending rules for the oil and gas sector are fairly stringent.
Oliver's aggressive stand may have backfired on the government in the past. Last year, after taking on environmentalists opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia, public opposition to the pipeline surged, and now the project is widely considered to be moribund.
And Oliver quickly backtracked on comments he made in Europe this week. On Wednesday, he said Ottawa would consider a World Trade Organization challenge of the European fuel requirements, unless they are changed — comments that prompted raised eyebrows in Conservative circles since they come at a delicate stage of negotiations between Canada and Europe on a free trade agreement.
By Friday, Oliver was saying he did not mean to threaten anyone.
"I would not certainly characterize this as a threat," he said.
"We're going to work very hard to make these changes, which I think would be in everyone's interest to do. But if these arbitrary rules were to stay, I wanted to signal that as a very last resort, we would defend Canada's interests and we would consider the WTO alternative."