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Alberta has pinned its hopes on carbon-capture technology as a way to offset its emissions without harming the output of its oil and gas sector. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press)
Alberta has pinned its hopes on carbon-capture technology as a way to offset its emissions without harming the output of its oil and gas sector. (John Ulan/The Canadian Press)

Colin Robertson

We need a national ecological strategy to match our energy ambitions Add to ...

“There are an awful lot of folks who are trying to make up their minds, and trying to draw the right balance,” observed U.S. ambassador David Jacobson on the divide between the energy and security benefits of oil-sands imports and the environment. On the environment, he was emphatic: “There needs to be more progress.”

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Sadly, wrongly, the Keystone XL pipeline debate has become the U.S. environmental movement’s litmus test for the Obama administration’s position on climate change. In reality, the American emissions challenge is not so much Canadian production as American consumption.

The columnist Fareed Zakaria wrote this week that Keystone XL is “a symbol of how emotion has taken the place of analysis and ideology now trumps science on both sides of the environmental debate.”

But Canada is capable of demonstrating the “progress” requested by ambassador Jacobson – and if we do so, the benefits to Canada can be even greater.

Start with the measurable climate-change achievements that can be met through provincial initiatives.

British Columbia has a working carbon tax. Alberta has a carbon compliance market. Saskatchewan has piloted carbon capture and storage, including collaborative projects with Montana and North Dakota and the US Department of Energy.

Leadership in getting out of coal-fired generation began in Ontario. Quebec has a cap on carbon. There are other projects – tidal power in the Bay of Fundy, alternative energy initiatives in biomass, wind and solar.

In terms of land claims and constructive collaboration with First Nations, Manitoba and Quebec lead the way in their development of hydroelectricity, including transmission lines.

Knit these initiatives together and look to the lessons learned in the negotiation of the Boreal Forest Accord. Its architect Avrim Lazar says the forest industry concluded that “our jobs and growth in the future will rest on making our environmental practices the highest in the world.”

Make our experience the base for further regional ‘green’ initiatives, especially those that focus on water use. These will also give us critical components of a national energy strategy that will put us ahead of our climate-change obligations. Many companies in the energy sector are already using shadow carbon pricing.

Draw on efforts taking place at the provincial level and by the premiers, who are working both Washington and their governor counterparts.

In so doing, we can also go a long way towards developing a national energy strategy, one that should also include getting our oil and gas to tidewater. The discussions launched by premiers Redford, Alward and Marois deserve further debate at the Council of the Federation when they meet this summer.

Trans-border environmental cooperation is well-entrenched. In 2009 Canada and the United States celebrated a century of co-operation protecting shared waters. Regional collaboration is especially strong at the premier and governor level.

Premiers Wall, Redford and Selinger were all working Washington recently, the latter pair at the recent National Governors Association. Premier Wall made a useful observation that Americans need to be constantly reminded of their northern partner because “like a long-lasting marriage, it’s important to have a date night.”

Premier Selinger argued that we also need to push the Americans to show some “progress” of their own on hydroelectricity, the cleanest energy in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions. Ambassador Doer is right when he decries US obfuscation in defining Canadian hydro under renewable-energy standards.

We are in alignment with the US on our Copenhagen commitments. Our vehicle emission standards are in tandem.

We are ahead, although not pure, on national coal standards that will see the eventual phase-out of coal generation. Ontario will close its coal-burning plants by the end of this year. A decade ago, coal fired 25 per cent of its grid.

Our weak link is oil and gas regulations, now promised for mid-year.

Usually, we are the ones making ‘asks’ of the United States on environmental issues such as Acid Rain, the Devil’s Lake water diversion, Great Lakes clean-up, and preserving the sanctity of the Arctic. Brian Mulroney artfully demonstrated that on Acid Rain, when we clean up our own act, we can ‘shame’ the United States into action.

The perception that we are on the wrong side of the environmental fence doesn’t jibe with where Canadians tell pollsters they want their government to be.

At his namesake convention this past weekend, Preston Manning encouraged Canadian Conservatives to make the environment a ‘sword’ rather than ‘shield’ and become “more positive and proactive.”

We can meet or exceed Ambassador Jacobson’s expectations with a national ecological strategy that matches our energy strategy. To paraphrase Prime Minister Harper, we have within our capacity the ability not just to be an energy superpower, but to be an 'eco-energy' superpower

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice-president and senior fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and senior strategic adviser to McKenna, Long and Aldridge.

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