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By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO, March 5 (Reuters) - A top Canadian government minister on Tuesday tried to persuade the United States it should approve a controversial oil pipeline and said Canada was also looking to other markets for its energy.
The remarks by federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver were the most high-profile attempt so far to pressure Washington into giving the green light to TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to Texas.
"We don't normally advocate for a particular project but we believe that it's in Canada's strategic interest to get our resources to tidewater to attract a higher price and to access broader markets," Oliver told reporters after a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The U.S. State Department said in a draft report last Friday that building the pipeline would not demonstrably boost emissions of greenhouse gases. Oliver said his visit was arranged before the report was issued.
A final decision will be taken later this year by U.S. President Barack Obama, who is under heavy pressure from environmentalists to veto the project on the grounds it will help speed up the process of global warming.
Oliver said the pipeline would generate thousands of jobs in the United States and reduce reliance on imports from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.
"Canada is and wants to remain your most important energy partner," he said in his speech, noting that even if U.S. domestic production continued to rise, the country would still need Canadian crude.
Canada's pro-business right-of-center Conservative government is keen to see more development of the tar sands, which are estimated to contain 169 billion barrels of crude and are the world's third-largest proven reserve of oil.
Ottawa is particularly keen to sell tar sands oil to China and backs Enbridge Inc's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the tar sands to the Pacific coast. But environmentalists and aboriginal groups oppose the pipeline and there are strong doubts whether it will ever be built.
Oliver also mentioned Kinder Morgan Energy Partners' plans to expand its existing Trans Mountain pipeline from the oil sands to the Pacific coast, as well as a proposal to run a pipeline to eastern Canada from Alberta.
"America imports about 10 million barrels of oil a day and will need to import oil for decades to come," he said.
"With Canada able to supply all of the U.S.' future imported oil needs and the energy sector in the U.S. continually growing, together we can achieve North American energy independence by 2035, and probably before."
Oliver also said high-profile activists had no business criticizing Keystone XL, noting that U.S. emissions from coal were far higher than those from the oil sands.
In Canada, not one major natural resource project has escaped opposition by one group or another, he said.
"They're just opposed to the development of natural resources and this is one of them," he said, adding that opponents see the pipeline as a symbol in their battle against hydrocarbons and the oil sands.