09/28/2011 12:00 EDT | Updated 11/28/2011 05:12 EST

Oil Sands Opposition Comes From Unexpected Places

Getting involved in opposition against the oil sands is simply a dirty trick against a competitor. But it's also more. The oil sands can supply the world with lots more oil, thus keeping prices lower than otherwise.

BANFF -- I believe that foreign countries are behind some of the noise and mischief in the United States to try to shut down Canada's oil sands and block construction of the proposed pipeline to bring 700,000 more barrels day to Texas refineries.

The new global reality, since the UN Copenhagen failure to come to any workable agreement to reduce pollution or population worldwide, is that powerful, transnational non-state players are roaming the world, in the environmental space, replacing smaller and local activists. They are run by faceless persons, they cross borders, they have planetary mandates to attack fossil fuel or any energy development and are armed with funds, media smarts and political influence. They prey on countries where there is an open and transparent system of environmental management even though they often are not transparent themselves in terms of their backers, financing sources and agenda.

They swarm around chosen causes and one of their biggest targets has been Canada's oil sands. This has made no sense because emissions from the oil sands are a fraction of the emissions from coal and equivalent to California heavy crude oils or ethanol. None of these has been getting the same attention as the oil sands and this pipeline.

But here's one example of the transnational environmentalism.

A few months ago, the shipment of over-sized equipment from South Korea for use in the oil sands was stopped at the border. The equipment was being imported by U.S. oil giants, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil via the United States, which is when the problem arose.

The cheapest way to transport this cargo to land-locked Alberta was to barge the equipment up the Columbia River to get as close as possible to the U.S.-Canada border which is in Lewiston, Idaho. The equipment was to be loaded onto trucks and driven, at night, through Idaho and Montana across the border to their oil sands projects.

The two companies were asked to put up, and spent, $25 million to provide road "turnouts" or places where these wide loads could pull aside to make room for other traffic.

"Somehow some entities got mobilized about the extra-size equipment and got organize to stop the shipment on the basis of highway safety," Matt Morrison, Executive Director of Pacific NorthWest Economic Region said in an interview at the Global Business Forum held in Banff every year and sponsored by the oil industry and Alberta government.

The issue became politicized in Idaho and Montana. Letters and other communications opposing the transport streamed into the Department of Highways in Montana, Morrison said.

"We were shocked that only 37 per cent of those who wrote complaining [about the equipment going to the oil sands] lived in the state and the rest were from places like Nigeria, Venezuela. Most were international," he said. "The equipment was held up for quite some time and some is still held up awaiting permits."

This was hardly surprising.

Nigeria and Venezuela are, like Saudi Arabia, suppliers of oil to the United States. Getting involved in opposition against the oil sands is simply a dirty trick against a competitor. But it's also more. The oil sands can supply the world with lots more oil, thus keeping prices lower than otherwise.

Whether their oil dependent regimes are directly involved is difficult to know. That these regimes are likely to be involved, but have hidden their tracks, is a given.

The Saudi Arabians, kingpins in OPEC, have been hyper-vigilant for decades about the oil sands, whose reserves are the same size as the Kingdom's at current price levels. This reality, long known to those of us who cover the energy scene, busted out publicly in Canada recently when the Saudi government embarked on strong-arm tactics to stop television commercials by a pro-oil sands NGO, or non-governmental organization, called

As the Post's Claudia Cattaneo wrote this week, the commercials encouraged consumers to favour "ethical" oil from Canada over "conflict" oil that comes from undemocratic regimes, where most of the world's oil reserves are located. Its message zeroed in on the mistreatment of females in Saudi Arabia by including controversial footage.

The Saudis hired lawyers to tell the Television Bureau of Canada, the advertising review and clearance service funded by Canada's private broadcasters, to withdraw approval of the ads. The grassroots group was outraged and was going to run the ads on CTV until the network backed out under pressure from the Saudis.

"As the ad in question is the subject of a legal dispute between Ethical Oil and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at the advisement of our legal department we will not accept the order until the matter is resolved," a CTV statement said.

The Saudi government also approached Canada's oil industry to express its concerns over the ethical oil campaign, just in case it had a role in it, industry sources confirmed. Takes one to know one. But they were wrong and were told so.

Jason Kenney, Canadian Minister of Immigration, was upset and told a newspaper: "Canada is a country that is a champion of freedom of speech. That is a constitutional right. We don't take kindly to foreign governments threatening directly or indirectly Canadian broadcasters or media for giving voice to freedom of speech."

That message, about political intervention to block oil from Canada to the U.S., should also be understood in Washington. Both countries cannot let unsavory regimes hijack what is in both countries' best interests.

This post was originally published in the Financial Times.