For Pelosi and Markey, an Oil Sands Mission

An oil sands mining operation in Fort McMurray, Alberta.Bloomberg News An oil sands mining operation in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Green: Politics

Representatives Nancy Pelosi of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts are in Canada this week to learn and listen about oil sands development there. The two Democrats are getting an earful from Canadian officials as well as from Canadian environmental groups on the pluses and minuses of importing oil from Alberta.

Later this year the State Department will decide whether to authorize a new pipeline, Keystone XL, that would run from the Alberta to Texas. If built, it would vastly expand the potential for oil imports from Canada.

But environmental groups as well as United States government entities like the Environmental Protection Agency have expressed concern about increasing the country’s reliance on Canada’s oil sands for imports, both because of the high levels of greenhouse gases emitted through extraction of the oil and the serious environmental consequences in Canada.

Oil sands extraction has already felled large swaths of boreal forest, created toxic ponds and polluted rivers and indigenous villages.

On Wednesday night Ms. Pelosi, the House speaker, and Mr. Markey, chairman of the House Energy and Environment subcommittee, dined with Ed Stelmach, Alberta’s premier, among others, at the United States Embassy in Ottawa. Mr. Stelmach, an aggressive promoter of his province’s oil, had said earlier, “Our goal there is to appeal to her sense of reason, to communicate very clearly that we continue to be focused on environmental improvement in developing the oil sands.”

On Thursday the pair met with environmental groups and leaders of Canada’s First Nations communities, who described the environmental damage wrought by the excavations.

Both sides claimed to have received a sympathetic hearing, though Ms. Pelosi made no pronouncements on the trip and some American lawmakers are likely to think long and hard before they position themselves on the issue.

On the one hand, Canadian oil represents a secure energy supply from the ultimate friendly neighbor. On the other, building a new pipeline commits the United States to a long future of fossil fuel use, drawing on a form of oil that, for now at least, is particularly polluting.

By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL/NYT

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