Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hold the sarcasm, clear the air

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Canada has already done more than the United States to curb its pollution from coal-fired power plants, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said this week. He was firing back against U.S. advice that Canada should get with the program and join in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

Mr. Harper said Canada is not going to take any step that would destroy jobs and economic growth in this country. No country would take such steps, he said, whatever they may say -- and he was clearly referring to U.S. President Barack Obama's newly announced regulation to curb coal smoke from power plants. "We are just a little more frank about that," Mr. Harper said.

Mr. Harper could become still more frank and recognize that Canada, the U.S. and all countries have to live together, breathe the same air and pass on a livable planet to the next generation. It is unwise to let a single-minded quest for quick financial gain inflict on Canadians and their neighbours damage that will last forever. We need to keep a sense of proportion.

Bruce Heyman, who took up the post of U.S. ambassador to Canada in April, used his first speech as ambassador to draw attention to the new U.S. regulation that will cut greenhouse gas emissions of coal-fired power plants by 30 per cent by 2030. He challenged Canada to join with the U.S. in combating climate change. He called for more action on Canada's fastest-growing source of emissions, oil production.

Mr. Harper's dismissive remarks about the new U.S. curbs on coal smoke were made in this context and in the context of a continuing campaign by Mr. Harper and Canadian oil producers to win U.S. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Athabaska-region bitumen to Oklahoma for distribution to Gulf Coast refineries. The Obama administration is unwilling to approve the pipeline if it contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions and global warming.

Ontario's Liberal government in recent years closed coal-fired power plants in Thunder Bay, Nanticoke and Lambton. Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and Alberta still generate power from coal, but coal accounts for only about 16 per cent of Canada's power production. By any reckoning, the U.S. regulation is much more sweeping than Ontario's action, affecting about 1,000 thermal plants.

The Keystone XL pipeline is a good solution for bringing Canadian petroleum to U.S. consumers who need it to drive their cars. The Obama administration will approve it much more easily, however, if it is one of a series of steps whose net effect is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions of Canada and the U.S. together. Mr. Harper should be drawing the U.S. into a discussion about that series of steps.

At the moment, he is not giving President Obama much to work with. He is citing Ontario's closure of coal-fired plants as though Canada had already done more than its share to curtail air pollution, a thin and unpersuasive claim. He has questioned the frankness of the U.S. government and claimed all countries always put jobs ahead of clean air. But it is more true to say all industrial countries seek a balance between jobs and clean air. The oldest and dirtiest plants are closed, even at some cost in jobs, because people want both clean air to breathe and a paycheque to feed the family.

Ambassador Heyman should have known he would irritate Mr. Harper by asking that Canada follow the U.S. example and cut its greenhouse-gas emissions. But it would cost the prime minister nothing to curtail his sarcasm and focus on paving the way toward joint action by the two countries. He should welcome the U.S. curbs on coal smoke because they will eventually benefit Canadians.

If he wants to claim the U.S. is following Ontario's example, that may be plausible to some extent. But he should recognize Canadians and Americans, along with the other industrial countries, have a shared problem of dirty air that they will have to solve together.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2014 A14

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