The Harper government is on the defensive over its climate-change policy amid charges it is conspiring with the oil industry and Alberta to lobby for weaker emissions rules in the United States and Europe.
Environment Minister John Baird, who is preparing for an international climate meeting in Cancun, Mexico, next week, brushed aside a report released by environmental groups on Monday that suggested the government has launched a co-ordinated campaign with Alberta and the oil industry to persuade governments to weaken U.S. and European greenhouse-gas emission regulations that would hurt oil sands producers.
In the House of Commons, Mr. Baird criticized Liberal MP Joyce Murray for attacking an industry that provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, and noted to Bloc Québécois critics that Quebec pension funds are heavily invested in the oil sands.
Ms. Murray accused the government of pursuing a "sad climate-change con job," after the release of the report, which is based on internal memos and e-mails in which officials from three federal departments work on strategies for countering U.S. and EU policies and aggressive efforts by environmental groups to target Canada's "dirty oil."
The Prime Minister's spokesman, Andrew MacDougall, said the government "proudly" supports the oil sands industry and other Canadian resource sectors.
"With regards to the oil sands, they are a strategic resource that will contribute to energy security for Canada, North America, and the world for decades to come," Mr. MacDougall said. "However, as we do recognize the environmental challenges of developing the oil sands, we will continue to work with all levels of government and industry to ensure that they are developed responsibly."
In one series of e-mails dated December, 2008, Paul Khanna, a senior official at Natural Resources Canada, convened a meeting of colleagues, noting that the oil sands sector "has emerged as one of the high priority files" for the government, and sent around briefing notes from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry lobbying arm.
The documents, which groups obtained under Access to Information, note that the Department of Foreign Affairs has launched an "oil sands advocacy" effort in the United States to counter what one official refers to as "political lobbying" against the oil sands - including California's low-carbon fuel regulations and a U.S. law that would prevent government departments from using fuels that result in high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmentalist Graham Saul said the campaign to defend the oil sands is consistent with the government's approach of doing nothing at home and obstructing progress on climate regulations internationally.
The documents reveal "a concerted effort to weaken climate policies outside our borders, with the aim of ensuring that no doors are closed to Canada's highly polluting tar sands," said Mr. Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada.
"In other words, Canada is not just exporting dirty oil any more; we're also exporting dirty policies."
Next week, the world's environment ministers will gather in Cancun to work on advancing a global treaty on greenhouse gas emissions, although little progress is expected given the unwillingness or inability of major countries such as the United States and China to commit to binding emission-reduction targets that would be monitored and verified.
Canada has committed to reducing its emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, but has produced no plan to do so.
The internal documents "reinforce the general sense that this government is playing a reckless and destructive role at the international level," Mr. Saul said.
The Calgary-based industry is battling a concerted and well-funded effort by environmental groups to target the oil sands as public enemy No. 1 in the climate-change debate. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has launched a major advertising campaign designed to soften the image of oil sands producers.
CAPP president David Collyer said there is nothing wrong with Ottawa defending a major Canadian sector from discriminatory treatment by foreign governments.
"I don't see this as advocacy on behalf of the industry or Alberta. I think what it is is the federal government representing their views on what they believe to be in the Canadian interest as it pertains to oil sands," Mr. Collyer said.