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President Barack Obama answers questions during his news conference at the White House on April 30, 2013.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press

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Since the early days of Barack Obama's first term, there hasn't been much talk in Canada of a continental energy and climate approach, but Jim Prentice is trying to breathe new life into the idea.

There currently appears to be no more appetite in Washington for such a grand bargain than there was four years ago, though the Obama administration has agreed with China to explore a joint strategy that would link the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases.

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President Obama has signalled he wants greater action on climate change, even as international negotiators begin work in earnest on a treaty aimed at replacing the Kyoto Protocol by the end of 2015.

The presidential priority may create an opportunity for greater collaboration with Canada, though an overarching energy and environmental agreement would likely prove out of reach.

With booming oil-and-gas production transforming the North American energy picture, Mr. Prentice argues now is the time to relaunch the effort to ensure an efficient continental market that does not impose undue burdens on one set of producers at the expense of either others in North America or offshore competitors.

He is also mindful of U.S. pressure on Canada and Alberta to impose tougher greenhouse gas regulations on the oil sands to provide political support for any decision to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Now vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Mr. Prentice was Conservative environment minister when the Harper government signalled to the incoming Obama administration in 2009 that Canada wanted to forge a common approach on energy and environment. The result fell far short of his lofty goal.

What emerged from President Obama's visit to Ottawa was the Clean Energy dialogue, which is largely about sharing technical information in areas like energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage technology.

Rhetorically, the Harper government has hitched its wagon to U.S. climate strategy.

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In lobbying the Americans to approve the Keystone pipeline, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and others have highlighted Canada's commitment to match U.S. climate target of reducing emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.

The Conservative government also followed the American lead in shelving plans to introduce a cap-and-trade climate plan, after the sweeping Waxman-Markey legislation that would enact such a measure failed to pass the U.S. Congress. As a result, both Canada and the U.S. are now pursuing a regulatory approach, which included a U.S.-led effort to impose tougher emission standards on cars and trucks.

Despite its growth, the oil industry in the U.S. represents a small part of the overall emission picture. In contrast, it is the fastest growing source of emissions in Canada, and ambitious oil sands expansion could swamp efforts by Canada to meet its 2020 targets.

To date, the Americans have not targeted the oil industry for new greenhouse-gas rules, even as federal bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency urge Washington to work with Canada to reduce emissions in the oil sands.

The call for harmonized energy rules may be partly tactical: it can't hurt in the Keystone debate to point out that Canada is moving to impose new regulations its oil industry, while no climate rules will apply to either domestic U.S. producers or other importers.

But it may also be a matter of planting seeds that may bear fruit in real continental policymaking, as countries look for new ways to tackle climate change.

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Shawn McCarthy covers energy and the environment in the Ottawa bureau.

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