Harper faces online critics as he promotes Keystone XL in New York

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in New York today to persuade influential Americans that the Keystone XL pipeline will give them the North American energy independence they have been seeking.

Harper is meeting with business leaders and engaging in a one-on-one question-and-answer session at the Council for Foreign Relations.

Canada’s oilsands and the pipeline needed to ship crude down to the Gulf Coast will figure prominently in Harper’s remarks, with an emphasis on the economic and energy security benefits they will bring, said one senior official.

“Canada is a close friend, a democratic ally, and already the United States’ largest supplier of energy,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“This project will help North America achieve energy independence.”

But that’s a difficult argument to make to a sharp audience, said Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations and author of “The Power Surge,” a new book on the politics of energy.

That’s because oil is a global commodity, he noted — so even if there is political difficulty in Venezuela or the Middle East, there is still always oil available at a global price.

“You hear that (Keystone) will make U.S. energy self-sufficient, and you also hear that if it’s not built, the oil will be produced in another way,” Levi said.

“I think it’s very difficult to say both of these things at the same time.”

The thought that Americans would gain energy security by sourcing it from Canada is an idea out of the 1970s, when global markets were not nearly so supple, he added.

Still, Levi said it’s well worthwhile for Harper to play up the strength of the Canada-U.S. relationship, since those bilateral ties mean a great deal to both countries.

“The bilateral relationship undoubtedly plays a role in the decision-making, so a reminder of that is never without consequence.”

Environmental groups on both sides of the border are freshening up their anti-pipeline campaigns again today, in light of the Harper event and the intense lobbying in which Conservative cabinet ministers are currently engaged.

They are targeting the growth and high level of emissions coming from the Alberta oilsands, and also slamming Canada for its lack of a long-term plan to reduce greenhouse gases.

“No glossy brochures or green-washed billboards can change the fact that the pollution in the tar sands continues to soar,” said Hannah MacKinnon of Environmental Defence Canada.

“It is time for a reality check. The oil industry needs to invest in reducing carbon emissions instead of more empty PR spin.”

A small but rowdy group of protesters were gathered Thursday outside the venue for Harper’s event, their chants denouncing Keystone XL and instead demanding “clean green energy now!”

One passerby said the protesters have got it all wrong.

Modern technology means North American energy companies can produce oil and gas and take care of the environment at the same time, said Suzanne Engelmann, who was visiting the city from Greenville, S.C.

“We’ve been energy dependent for many many, years,” Engelmann said. “Canada and the United States, we share all the borders. We need to stick together.”

Harper, meanwhile, is ready for his critics, his officials say.

He is set to argue that Canada’s environmental protections are advancing in lock-step with development of the oilsands.

“The government is committed to responsible resource development that is matching concrete action on the environment … with economic development that will benefit all Canadians,” the official said.

“We’re working with the Americans on these fronts.”

However, the federal environment auditor has warned loudly that environmental oversight is dramatically lagging resource development, and putting Canada’s ability to meet its international emissions regulations at risk.

In the end, the American audiences Harper is addressing are not as interested in Canada’s environmental record as they are in the U.S. dependence on oil, said Levi.

“In the United States, this (Keystone debate) is mostly not a debate about Canada or Canada’s record. It’s a debate about the American energy record.”

A decision from the Obama administration is expected in the coming months. The federal Conservatives say the pipeline is the key to better market access for Canadian oil, and better prices too. That’s because Canadian oil is currently sold at a discount since it does not reach the global marketplace.

At the same time, Environment Minister Peter Kent says a better oil price — and the pipeline that will bring it — is necessary for energy sector companies to afford the investment that stiffer emissions regulations will eventually imply.