WINNIPEG - Rocker Neil Young took aim at the proposed Keystone XL pipeline Thursday on his concert tour condemning the Alberta oilsands, while energy executives, politicians and even a fellow musician shot back that he is irresponsible and uninformed.
Young told a news conference ahead of his Winnipeg concert that the TransCanada pipeline, which would carry oilsands bitumen from Alberta to Texas refineries, makes no sense since the oil would be sent to China — a country he called one of the dirtiest on Earth.
"People don't understand this oil is not for Canada," Young said. "A couple of months ago, Beijing had 30 times the World Health Organization's approved level of pollutants and dangerous substances in the air — 30 times that — and we're sending them oil.
"I don't feel really good about that."
TransCanada (TSX:TRP) quickly replied that the pipeline would be a supply line for U.S. refineries and not an export pipeline. Company spokesman Shawn Howard said the vast majority of exported oilsands oil is used in gasoline, diesel fuel and other North American products.
"It's unfortunate that people like Mr. Young want to mislead people about where Canadian oil goes and the benefits it creates," he said in an emailed statement.
"It has helped him create records and CDs, allows his tour buses to run, airplanes to fly, (allows) the manufacturing of high-tech equipment and guitar picks needed to entertain his audiences."
Young is on a four-city Canadian tour to support the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation that lives downstream from the oilsands. The band has filed a lawsuit to try to protect its traditional territory from further industrialization.
Since he kicked off the tour in Toronto on Sunday, the iconic musician has traded shots with the Prime Minister's Office and oil executives who say Young doesn't understand the oilsands or their economic benefit.
Even fellow Canadian musician Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo called Young's comparison of the oilsands with Hiroshima extreme.
"He's grossly exaggerating," Cuddy told Saskatchewan-based Missinipi Broadcasting Corp. "Nobody can say that any kind of open-pit mining — whether it's oil, shale or whatever — is beautiful," he said.
"I'm not sure this is about esthetics. It's about clean water, clean air and economics."
However, Cuddy, who was to play a concert in Fort McMurray on Thursday night, also suggested that Young has triggered a national discussion about the oilsands that is long overdue.
"You have to appreciate that Neil in his own extreme, crazy way has begun a dialogue that we have to have in this country."
Young continued his offensive undeterred Thursday.
"We can preserve what we have so that we can say we did the right thing. If we don't, it's just going to look like the moon in Alberta," he said. "It is like a war zone, a disaster area from war, what's happened up there."
Both the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and Shell Canada held a news conference in Calgary to rebut Young's claims. It is the approval Shell has received for its Jackpinemine expansion that the Athabasca Chipewyan are fighting.
Association president Dave Collyer said Young's statements "demonstrate pretty consistently a lack of understanding of the oilsands" and the economic benefits.
"I think it's fair to say the misrepresentations being made on the tour are quite irresponsible," he said. "More importantly, they do a disservice to the First Nations he is ostensibly trying to help, to the many individuals whose livelihoods depend on oilsands activity and ... to Canadians who we believe generally benefit very greatly from oilsands development."
Collyer said Young is entitled to his opinion.
"I would suggest that he has a democratic right to be wrong."
Collyer added he'd be pleased to meet with Young and Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam when they come to Calgary on Sunday for the final stop of the "Honour the Treaties" tour.
Shell vice-president Stephanie Sterling said the world may one day rely solely on renewable fuel sources, but for now oil provides an "affordable" and "accessible" energy source.
"In our experience, the aboriginal peoples want to build sustaining economic communities while they protect their traditional land and the environment," she said.
Adam said First Nations aren't opposed to economic development. But the federal government is bound by treaty to properly consult aboriginal people and use natural resources responsibly.
"We are totally for economic development for our future generations to come but we want to do it in a reasonable way," Adam said. "Our treaties are being broken, in more ways than one."
— With files from Lauren Krugel in Calgary
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the Winnipeg concert was on Friday.