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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Environmentalists are taking aim at Alberta's C$5.6 billion ($5.4 billion) tourism industry in the latest battle over the impact of developing the Canadian province's oil sands.
Alberta is the largest supplier of crude oil to the United States and the environmentalists say their "Rethink Alberta" campaign is in response to pro oil-sands lobbying and advertising in the United States by the Alberta government and the province's oil industry.
The campaign, led by San Francisco-based Corporate Ethics International, features billboards in four U.S. cities urging Americans to exclude Alberta from their travel plans, saying it is "one of the world's dirtiest destinations".
"The government of Alberta and Canada are paying lobbyists, working with oil companies, running full-page ads down here, to block legislation like low-carbon fuel standard legislation that would help us make the transition (from fossil fuels)," Corporate Ethics International Executive Director Michael Marx said.
"And they are also down here lobbying for infrastructure, new pipelines, refineries, which would keep us addicted to high-carbon oil for another 50 years."
The billboards compare the oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, using the phrase, "Alberta: the other oil disaster."
The billboards are up in Denver, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis, which the group said are home to the largest number of U.S. visitors to Alberta, which is known for such destinations as Banff and Jasper national parks in the Rocky Mountains.
Northern Alberta's oil sands represent the largest deposit of crude outside the Middle East but extracting oil from the terrain requires energy-intensive mining techniques. Environmental groups say development comes at a disproportionately high cost to land, water, local communities and the fight against global warming.
A previous campaign by Corporate Ethics International compared oil sands development with James Cameron's sci-fi blockbuster "Avatar" and endorsed the film for an Academy Award.
Alberta and the oil industry have mounted counteroffensives, disputing charges that, for instance, oil sands developers are destroying a boreal forest the size of England. They have also touted their large investments in improving environmental performance.
Early this month, Alberta's Conservative premier, Ed Stelmach, took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post detailing the importance of Alberta to U.S. energy security and urging support for TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship oil sands-derived crude to Texas.
"There's always going to be individuals and organizations that want to rid the world of fossil fuel reliance and let's be clear that is what is behind most of these campaigns. That's simply not going to happen," his energy minister, Ron Liepert, said in response to the Rethink Alberta ads.
The government's rivals in the provincial legislature, the right-wing Wildrose Alliance, called for all political parties to "come together to show Albertans that we take these attacks seriously and we will respond in the best interests of the people we all represent."
Editing by Peter Galloway