Conservatives deny diplomatic push to shield oilsands from U.S. environmental rules

Published by Postmedia News on Mon Nov 29 2010

OTTAWA – The Harper government dismissed accusations Monday that its environmental policies were focused on protecting the Alberta oilsands, in light of newly-released documents showing some oil-friendly Canadian diplomats attempting to undermine foreign environmental policies.

The documents were released as international negotiators from almost 200 countries gather in Cancun, Mexico, for the annual United Nations climate change summit. They also coincide with an acknowledgment from Environment Minister John Baird last weekend that Canada would not follow the lead of the Obama administration in its plans to set new limits on greenhouse gas pollution from new industrial facilities and major expansions to existing ones starting in the year 2011.

Baird said Monday that his government was still working “very closely” with the U.S. government and President Barack Obama.

“We will harmonize regulations in the transportation sector and we’ll find the equivalent in other cases,” Baird said in the House of Commons in response to questions from Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe. “It is absolutely essential that we work together with our partners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We have already made recommendations for large polluters that produce electricity from coal. Canada is the first country in the world to do this.”

“The reason why the Conservative government is no longer interested in following the example set by the United States on climate change is very simple. It’s because the new regulations regarding clean energy would hurt the oilsands sector.” – Gilles Duceppe

But environmental groups say the lack of a detailed climate change plan in Canada, along with revelations from the documents, demonstrate that the Harper government is not making a strong effort to crack down on pollution linked to global warming.

“The fact is in barely a few weeks from now, the U.S. is going to have federal regulations in place for industrial greenhouse gas pollution,” said Matthew Bramley, director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental research group. “Meantime, in Ottawa, there is no sign of Canadian federal regulations for industrial greenhouse gas pollution.”

The newly-released documents revealed that the Harper government was actually trying to weaken U.S. environmental policies behind the scenes. The documents include emails from diplomats at Canada’s embassy in Washington, D.C., who had contacted officials from companies such as ExxonMobil and BP, urging them to speak with U.S. politicians on the hill about policies that could harm Alberta’s oilsands industry, Postmedia News reported on Monday.

“The reason why the Conservative government is no longer interested in following the example set by the United States on climate change is very simple,” said Duceppe in the Commons. “It’s because the new regulations regarding clean energy would hurt the oilsands sector. Will the prime minister admit that his priority is not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but rather to protect the interests of the oil industry?”

Bramley said the new U.S. regulations, which consist of issuing permits that force polluters to pay, are not ideal and still do not address pollution from existing facilities, but he said that it could represent the start of a plan to address the rapidly-expanding oilsands sector in Canada that has seen its emissions triple since 1990.

There are virtually no expectations of reaching a binding deal on global warming in Cancun following the 2009 summit in Copenhagen that failed to produce such an agreement to succeed the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol which ends in 2012.

The Kyoto agreement was the first international deal that forces most developed countries to meet legally-binding targets to cap their industrial emissions of greenhouse gas emissions which trap heat in the atmosphere and can contribute to global warming. Scientists say the world must dramatically slash the emissions, primarily resulting from the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline or coal, within decades, if not years, to avoid irreversible damage to the planet’s ecosystems.

But many countries have refused to sign on to new legally-binding targets without guarantees that major polluting nations such as the U.S., China, and India would also accept mandatory caps on pollution. The Harper government and other countries have argued that they would be at an economic disadvantage if they are forced to crack down on fossil fuel companies without similar action abroad.

Countries at the Cancun summit believe they can make progress on some aspects of a final agreement such as sorting out details for funding from developed countries to help developing countries cope with the impacts of climate change. They are also hoping to make progress on stopping deforestation, one of the leading sources of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well negotiating the rules for reporting and measuring commitments made by all countries in the deal.

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