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Give Obama elbow room on environment, Saskatchewan premier tells Ottawa

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OTTAWA - The Harper government needs to bring in long-delayed regulations on the oil and gas industry to burnish Canada's environmental credentials and help win pipeline approvals, says Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

Or maybe not. It depends on which response to the same question one takes from the same Wall scrum with reporters.

Wall joins a chorus of voices, including some in Canada's oil patch, who have suggested regulatory foot-dragging by the Conservative government has not been strategically beneficial for the energy sector.

The popular Saskatchewan premier, considered a potential future federal Conservative leadership contender, stoutly defended Canada's oil and gas export aspirations in a speech to the conservative Manning Centre's annual conference.

"This is a good thing for our country, for yours," said Wall. "We ought to be proud of it. We ought never to be ashamed we have these things the world wants."

But speaking with reporters afterwards, Wall said more emphasis on environmental issues is required to win the needed political and social licence to transport oil to market.

Wall said Ottawa and the provinces have based their arguments in favour of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline on the project's economic merits — an argument that Wall believes Canada has won.

Yet approval of Alberta-to-Texas pipeline is mired in U.S. domestic politics and awaits a decision from President Barack Obama.

"This is not second-guessing what any of us did," said Wall. "What we now need to do, though, is pivot to the environment."

"I think we all should have been giving the administration in the United States more environmental elbow room in our recent trips to Washington."

Wall's comments were followed at the Manning conference by a speech from Jim Prentice, the CIBC executive who previously served as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's environment minister.

"As conservatives we must believe in and establish and enforce world-class regulatory and monitoring standards," Prentice told the gathering.

He added that "any country's environmental ambition will only ever be as good as the regulations that support it."

The federal Conservatives have said since 2007 that they would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by imposing regulations on industrial sectors.

But the federal government has so far avoided the fastest-growing and most contentious sector, oil and gas.

This despite an unusually direct public appeal by the then-U.S. ambassador to Canada last February after Obama's state-of-the-union speech urged swift action on climate change.

"We all need to do as much as we can. And that is true in your country and in mine," David Jacobson said at the time.

Asked Friday about the long-delayed oil and gas regulations, Wall was emphatic.

"We need those regulations to come forward," said the premier.

"We need to make sure we've struck the balance in terms of the economy and the environment, but that's not the only environmental leeway or licence we can offer or promote to our American friends."

He noted Saskatchewan is investing heavily in a clean coal project.

Yet Wall, at another point in the same scrum Friday, contradicted himself.

"I'm not disputing the importance of oil and gas regulations, but I'm saying we can give our American friends the environmental licence and encouragement on Keystone without them, just based on our record and based on the fact that if we're harmonizing our emissions targets with them," he said.

The same policy uncertainty seems to be seizing the oil and gas industry itself.

Last spring, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers privately lobbied the Harper government in a memo to delay implementing regulations because the "social licence benefits are uncertain."

However in a speech in Ottawa in December, Shell Canada president Lorraine Mitchelmore urged the government to spur industry innovation by introducing the long-delayed regulations.

"Federal regulations will add pressure to innovate. It is a great policy tool for innovation and it will signal to the world that Canada is stepping up to do its part."

Harper's previous environment minister said about this time last year that the oil and gas regulations would be coming by summer 2013. Peter Kent was replaced last July by Leona Aglukkaq.

Harper, in a December interview with Global TV, punted the regulations off the political agenda by saying new rules would be introduced "over the next couple of years."

Follow @bcheadle and @jenditchburn on Twitter

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