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Harper chooses fresh spokesman for a stale environmental policy

With the Obama administration taking its first concrete steps toward fighting global warming, Stephen Harper had a perfect opportunity to use his cabinet shuffle as a springboard for a new approach to the environment.

Instead, the Prime Minister chose a fresh spokesman to sell the status quo. While the Conservatives have moved to control automobile emissions and to protect environmentally sensitive spaces, the government refuses to make combatting climate change a priority.

Peter Kent, the new Environment Minister, will be responsible for "the fine-tuning of the ministry," the Prime Minister told reporters on Tuesday, which will be "consistent with our intention to stay the course."

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South of the border, the Environmental Protection Agency recently promised to crack down on carbon dioxide emitters after President Barack Obama failed to get climate-change legislation through Congress. At first blush, Mr. Harper appeared to suggest Canada was ready to follow the EPA's lead.

"Should the United States take aggressive actions ... Canada will be working with the Obama administration," the Prime Minister declared.

But the political battles facing the President and the EPA, and the two countries' different circumstances, will ensure that the Conservatives can avoid any meaningful regulation of heavy carbon dioxide emitters for years to come.

Mr. Kent, 68, was a news anchor for both Global and CBC, and had a distinguished career as a correspondent for NBC.

Opposition parties point out that he is the fifth environment minister in five years. (Actually, the fourth, because John Baird held the job twice.)

"I don't think we can expect much in the way of results" from Mr. Kent, opined Liberal chief Whip Marcel Proulx.

The Conservatives have consistently opposed strong action to fight global warming, arguing that it would cost jobs and make no sense unless co-ordinated with the United States, with which the Canadian economy is heavily integrated.

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Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency released a timetable for regulating emissions for new power plants and oil refineries, although it will be 2015 before the rules start to bite for existing coal-fired power plants, a major source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Nothing under the planned rules would prompt Canada to follow suit, because this country generates more electricity through clean hydroelectricity and less through coal-fired plants.

The Harper government could emulate the Americans by imposing new restrictions on oil and gas production, especially in the Alberta oil sands. It is through oil and gas production, not electricity generation, that Canada contributes to a warming planet.

But Mr. Harper's repeated emphasis on "staying the course" suggests nothing will occur on that front.

That is hardly comforting for environmental groups. "We need better climate and energy policy, not a better spokesperson," said Keith Stewart, who advocates for the environmental group Greenpeace.

Even if the Harper government did plan to mirror EPA initiatives, it is far from certain those initiatives will ever see the light of day. Republicans in Congress vow to use their newly won control of the House of Representatives to constrain the EPA and possibly gut it by pulling its funding.

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If so, it will be yet another example of the Conservatives doing nothing on climate change, and then watching as other nations steadily lower their own environmental bar.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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