The management of Alberta's 171 billion barrels of proven oil reserves will be a major election issue, with political parties at odds about everything from upgrading to pipelines to environmental oversight.

Premier Alison Redford is focused on selling a controversial pan-Canadian national energy strategy to her provincial counterparts, which she hopes will solidify support for oilsands development and buttress her efforts to get the Keystone and Gateway pipelines built.

Those pipelines, which will bring Alberta bitumen to the United States and Asia respectively, are central to the province's plan to secure markets for its most valuable resource.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith says the national energy strategy is unnecessary and favours communication over legislation to get Canadians behind oilsands development.

University of Alberta School of Business energy expert Joseph Doucet says the province must improve its record of environmental oversight and stewardship and then do a better job of communicating those efforts to the world. "It will help us re-establish some of the social licence to operate, which we have lost," Doucet said. "People don't understand the benefits of the energy sector, so they zero in on the costs."

"And at present we don't have a good story about how we are dealing with some of the environmental impacts."

Environment Minister Diana McQueen has tried to address the issue by establishing an expanded joint federal-provincial monitoring process, but critics have slammed the lack of independent oversight. McQueen has now appointed a panel to make recommendations on the structure of the new oversight panel. It will report back in June, after the spring election.

Grant MacEwan University political science professor Chaldeans Mensah said "the government has to be aggressive in defending the oilsands as an important resource, globally, but at the same time to be forthright in dealing with some of the environmental fallout.

"If the two components are handled adroitly, I think it will put the government in a very positive position both within Canada and also abroad."

Dennis Westergaard, a political scientist at Fort McMurray's Keyano College, expects the province's decision to focus on exporting raw bitumen instead of refining it in Alberta will be at issue in the election.

"Why aren't we turning the product into finished oil right here? I find it baffling," Westergaard said. "Why we are shipping bitumen away, instead of oil?"

A recent poll showed 81 per cent of Albertans support government efforts to increase the amount of upgrading done in the province.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said he believes Albertans want their government to better manage the environmental impacts of the oilsands and that his party has long advocated for increased upgrading of bitumen in the province.

"We're not saying shut the oilsands down, we're saying clean them up," Mason said. "You can't just take out ads in the U.S. to say, gee, well, we're a reliable ethical partner, when everyone is seeing ducks dying in tailings ponds on the news.

"We're not against pipelines in principle," Mason said. "We think environmental and First Nations issues have to be addressed. If a case can be made that they're environmentally responsible, we would support them if they export upgraded products."

Edmonton Journal, Sun Mar 18 2012
Byline: Karen Kleiss

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