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Harper on U.S. climate-change coal crackdown: been there, done that

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OTTAWA - The federal government is responding to U.S. President Barack Obama's latest climate-change action plan with a shrug: been there, done that.

But observers of environmental policy say the United States will take a big leap ahead of Canada in meeting its greenhouse gas emissions targets for 2020.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plan would place new regulations on existing coal-fired electricity plants starting in 2020.

Bruce Heyman, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Canada, highlighted the policy Monday night in a major speech in Ottawa while emphasizing the need for the two countries to work together.

U.S. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to move crude oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, has been stalled south of the border, while the Obama adminstration drops heavy hints that Canada must do more on the environment.

"We need to continue that work together moving toward a low-carbon future, with alternative energy choices, greater energy efficiency, and sustainable extraction of our oil and gas reserves," Heyman said in prepared remarks.

"Newfound energy abundance should not distract us from the need to improve efficiency and combat climate change."

Obama is making sure the reductions happen by making an executive order via the EPA, rather than through Congress where previous attempts at action have failed. The White House also recently released a National Climate Change Assessment, with dire warnings on the impacts of severe weather.

"The Conservatives have said for years that we need to wait for the U.S. to take leadership. Well, here's the leadership," NDP environment critic Megan Leslie said to uproarious Conservative laughter Monday during question period.

"Obama's taking action, and yet still, we wait for the Conservatives to introduce their long delayed oil and gas regulations."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted that Canada announced similar action on coal-fired electricity plants in 2012, and he predicted the percentage drop in emissions from those plants is likely to be proportionately greater than those proposed by Washington.

"The NDP praises the action today of the Obama administration, acting two years after this government acted and taking actions that don't go near as far as this government went," Harper said.

But coal is by far the largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States, while Canada's is oil and gas. The economic impact of the coal regulations will likely make it a bigger political sacrifice for Obama than it was for Harper.

Regulations on Canada's largest oil and gas emitters have yet to be released, seven years after they were first discussed.

Some American experts are predicting that should the coal measures go through, the United States will be able to come close to its United Nations target of a 17 per cent reduction from 2005 greenhouse-gas levels by 2020.

Environment Canada's latest figures suggest Canada will get only halfway there, despite Harper tying himself to the United States' reduction target at an international conference in Copenhagen in 2009.

"This puts huge pressure on Canada," said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute.

"It emphasizes what a laggard we are on this file. Using the excuse of we can't act because the U.S. isn't acting doesn't ring true. U.S. is on track and we are not."

Conservative MP Peter Kent, the former environment minister, argues that Canada doesn't get enough credit given how hard it is to cut emissions from a system where much of the energy is already clean — namely hydroelectric power.

"On this file, I think Canada measures up pretty well," Kent said.

But comparing what the United States has pledged to do about coal with Canada's actions is like comparing apples and oranges, says David McLaughlin of the University of Waterloo's environment faculty.

"What we see today in the U.S. is at least an attempt to try to close that Copenhagen gap and make more progress. They're going after the single biggest source of emissions for them. That's a big deal, any way you cut it."

McLaughlin, who was formerly the head of the now-defunct National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), also points out that provinces such as Ontario deserve much of the thanks for reducing emissions from coal-fired plants.

"The equivalent (to the EPA announcement) would have been for us to announce a similar push on the oil and gas regs, going after our biggest emitting sector — that would be something to talk about."

Alberta already has regulations on big emitters, with a modest price of $15 per extra tonne of carbon levied on the oil and gas companies that goes into an innovation fund aimed at supporting clean technology.

Former oil executive Eric Newell, now chairman of that Alberta fund (Climate Change and Emissions Management Corp.), said the sector is ready for federal regulations.

"It is important for the federal government and the province and the industry come down and land on these oil and gas regulations, for no other reason than it creates certainty," Newell said in an interview Friday.

"It creates certainty in the business sense, but it also creates certainty in a political sense of where Canada's at."

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