DOHA Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert played down a verdict that found Syncrude Canada Ltd, the largest producer in Canada's oil sands, guilty in the deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed on a toxic tailings pond in 2008.
Syncrude faces maximum penalties of C$500,000 ($472,000) for provincial charges and C$300,000 under federal charges in the case, which crystallized international concern about the environmental impact of developing the oil sands of northern Alberta, the largest crude oil source outside the Middle East.
A judge issued the guilty verdicts on Friday, saying the company should have had waterfowl deterrents, such as sound cannons, in place when the birds set down on the settling basin.
"Business has to operate within the environmental standards that are set. When it is deemed that those standards are breached, action is taken. But this particular case has been highly overpublicized by the media and special interest groups," Liepert said in an interview this week.
"We've got bigger issues to deal with globally."
Liepert denied that the Syncrude incident had damaged the province's reputation.
"Clearly there has been a global campaign by special interest groups -- highly funded -- to discredit the oil sands. We believe that it is time to engage the public in a truth campaign, and so we will spend the dollars required to ensure that Canadians and those outside Canada understand the importance of the oil sands," he said.
Earlier this year, Liepert blasted the European Union, which he said aimed to erect trade barriers against the oil sands, using the environment as a guise.
Environmental groups have intensified campaigns in recent years to hammer home a message that oil sands development is harmful to air, land, water and wildlife.
The oil industry and the Alberta government have mounted public relations counteroffensives, saying practices are improving, including developing new technology to stop the spread of tailings ponds.
Liepert was in Doha for the University of Calgary-Qatar convocation. He said he would like to see more long-term investments between the Middle East and Canada, particularly around agriculture and food export.
(Editing by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Peter Galloway)