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Secret Canada - U.S. oil plan concerns opposition leaders 

[PoliticsWatch updated 5:30 p.m., January 18, 2007]

U.S. President George W. Bush.

OTTAWA  — Opposition politicians expressed surprise and concern Thursday following a television report of a secret plan for Canada to dramatically expand its oil sands exports to the U.S. 

Radio-Canada reported Wednesday evening that it had obtained the minutes of a secret meeting between American and Albertan oil executives that occured shortly after last year's federal election.   The PMO has since denied Radio Canada's suggestion that the meeting was secret and has complained to the CBC ombudsman about the suggestion that the meeting was arranged by the Conservative government. 

The meeting was arranged by Natural Resources Canada and the U.S. Department of Energy. 

According to Radio-Canada's documents, the Canadians and Americans developed a proposal to increase oil sands exports to the U.S. "fivefold" in a short period of time. The plan would require Canada to "streamline" environmental regulations to speed up the expansion. 

The U.S. need for Canadian oil is being fuelled largely by national security objectives outlined by the White House to reduce American dependency on oil produced in unstable parts of the world, such as the Mideast. 

U.S. President George W. Bush outlined this policy broadly in last year's State of the Union Address when he said "America is addicted to oil which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." 

While contributing to Canada's steady economic growth in recent years, Canada's oil sands have increasingly become the target of criticism from environmental groups because of the large amount of greenhouse gas emitted in extracting oil from the tar sands. 

The Green Party and the NDP have both called for some slowdown in the development in Canada's booming oil industry. 

In an interview with PoliticsWatch on Thursday, NDP Leader Jack Layton said he had suspicions that "something was up" between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Bush administration regarding the oil sands, especially after the prime minister began touting Canada as an "energy superpower."

Layton has said in the past that any cooperation his party would give to prop up the minority Tory government would require the government to end tax incentives for the oil industry for start up costs. 

However, the prime minister has been publicly reluctant to end the tax breaks for the oil patch after the government recently angered the sector when it broke its promise not to tax income trusts. 

"That obviously had a significant impact on the energy sector," Harper told reporters before Christmas. "I think it would be asking a bit much to target the energy sector for tax hikes in that manner." 

Layton said the Radio-Canada report raises more questions about whether the prime minister is really serious about addressing climate change. 

"I've expressed real concerns about whether Mr. Harper was serious about climate change," Layton said. "What's suggested now is in fact he may have been aware and be thoroughly engaged in the process of accelerated oil sands development."

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion said Thursday that if the Radio Canada report is true than the PM's recent push to tackle climate change is all smoke and mirrors. 

"If it's true that means that for the prime minister to be green is only an embarrassment," Dion said at a press conference in Ottawa. "He's doing that for electoral reasons."

While the current government is being criticized for the secret plan with the U.S., the meeting actually took place days after the federal election, a few weeks before Harper was sworn in as prime minister.  

At the time, John Efford was the Liberal natural resources minister. However, Efford had been considered as an absentee minister because of health problems that often kept him away from Ottawa.  

Dion, who was still environment minister when the meeting took place in Houston, said "I was not aware of it at all -- that specific meeting."

"I was unaware of any specific plan to increase the use of the oil sands. That is not a topic we were aware of."

Bloc Quebecois MP Claude DeBellefeuille issued a statement Thursday criticizing the current natural resources minister, Gary Lunn, for failing to inform the Commons natural resources committee about the proposal when he appeared before them to discuss the oil sands in the fall. 

Natural Resources Canada did not immediately return PoliticsWatch's request for an interview. 

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