Kitimat, upper right, would be the western termination point of the Northern… (Darryl Dyck / Canadian Press )
Reporting from Fort St. James, Canada — The prime minister is talking about being "held hostage" by U.S. interests. Radio ads blare, "Stand up to this foreign bully." A Twitter account tells of a "secret plan to target Canada: exposed!"
Could this be Canada? The cheerful northern neighbor: supplier of troops to unpleasant U.S.-led foreign conflicts, reliable trade partner, ally in holding terrorism back from North America's shores, not to mention the No. 1 supplier of America's oil?
Canada's recent push for the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta to the nation's West Coast, where it would be sent to China, has been marked by uncharacteristic defiance. And it first flared in the brouhaha over the bananas.
Responding to urgings from U.S. environmentalists, Ohio-based Chiquita Brands International Inc. announced in November that it would join a growing number of companies trying to avoid fuel derived from Canada's tar sands, whose production is blamed for accelerating climate change and leveling boreal forests.
Then in January, President Obama abruptly vetoed a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada's $7-billion project to deliver oil across the U.S. Midwest to the Texas Gulf Coast , which environmentalists have long opposed.
Mix in a touch of nationalism, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's view that Canada needs to hedge its oil bets by diversifying its export markets, and the fight was on — not only with the neighbor to the south, but also among Canadians.
"Canada is not what it used to be," said Todd Paglia, executive director ForestEthics, an environmental group that has been calling for the international boycotts on tar sands oil. "It's hard to believe, but it's tilting toward becoming more of an authoritarian petro state, positioning itself as a resource colony for China."
On the other side, a lobbying group pushing Canada as an alternative to unstable and sometimes unsavory oil producers in the Middle East ramped up a boycott of its own, this one targeting Chiquita bananas.
"Stand up to this foreign bully. Don't buy Chiquita bananas," said a radio spot by the group, which calls itself EthicalOil.org, complaining about what it called Chiquita's record of supporting terrorist groups in South America. A Twitter profile was set up for @bloodbananas to expose the allegedly hypocritical campaign against Canada.
Over the last few weeks, a two-agency review panel has convened the first in a long round of hearings on Northern Gateway, pointedly described as a pipeline that won't deliver much oil to the U.S. Instead, it will allow Canada to end its sole dependence on American buyers for its most important export by opening up markets in Asia, and allow it to attract the badly needed foreign investment to develop the sands.
"I think what's happened around the Keystone is a wake-up call, the degree to which we are dependent or possibly held hostage to decisions in the United States, and especially decisions that may be made for very bad political reasons," Harper, whose government has labeled pipeline opponents as foreign-funded "radicals," told CBC television in January.
The $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project, which would carry 525,000 barrels a day of crude 731 miles from a town near Edmonton through the Rocky Mountains to a new port on the British Columbia coast, has long been in the works as a companion to Keystone XL.
But with Keystone's recent turmoil in the U.S., Northern Gateway has risen to new prominence as a defiant Plan B for a nation increasingly aggressive in combating international hurdles, whether it's greenhouse gas treaties, low-carbon fuel standards or U.S. presidential politics.
"There has always been very strong support by the Harper government, by the province of Alberta and by the oil industry for the Northern Gateway pipeline. But there's no question that for all three of those entities, that urgency increased dramatically with the apparent defeat of Keystone XL," said George Hoberg, a political scientist and professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia.
"The Harper government's view is that, especially in the Obama years, the U.S. is becoming a less reliable partner for the oil sands."
Officials at Enbridge Inc., which is proposing the western pipeline, say it has been in the works for nearly a decade, though its need has become more apparent as the economy in Asia has boomed while the American one, which until now has consumed 99% of Canadian oil exports, has slowed. By some estimates, Canada has the third-largest proven oil reserves in the world, with 175 billion barrels.