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colin robertson

There is a tendency by Canadians to interpret any reference to Canada by the government of the United States as a direct challenge to our interests. The resulting foofaraw unnecessarily complicates what is a highly complex, but ultimately mutually beneficial, relationship.

The latest example of this tendency is the Canadian reaction to last week's Georgetown University speech by President Barack Obama.

The speech, aimed at his domestic audience, focused on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In endorsing natural gas President Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to make haste with regulatory changes that will shift U.S. power generation from coal to gas. Mindful of his other priorities – such as immigration reform – and the lessons of his first term, his preferred vehicle for climate-change progress will be regulation through the EPA (and litigation in the courts) rather than legislation through Congress.

In providing the blueprint for U.S. climate-change policy, Mr. Obama was fulfilling the vision outlined in his second inaugural address in January, and in February's State of the Union Address – and providing a bookend to the secure energy plan he set out two years ago, also at Georgetown.

One paragraph (of 92) in the Georgetown speech was devoted to the Keystone XL pipeline. The President said that that the U.S. national interest "will be served only if this project [Keystone] does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

There is nothing particularly new in this statement. Nevertheless, advocates on both sides of the Keystone XL debate are using it to reinforce their respective positions.

But it is better to take it at face value: As another indication that President Obama sees the pipeline as "relevant" to the climate change debate.

The oils-sands debate, of which the pipeline is a surrogate, has sucked up most of the oxygen in the Canada-U.S. energy discussion and frustrates the overall relationship.

The debate is important and deserves attention, but it is diverting us from what should be a much broader and more constructive discussion of our shared priorities.

Take, for example, hydroelectric power, a renewable energy source for which the president has promised "priority permitting" for new projects.

Canadians draw 60 per cent of our electricity from hydro, with significant exports to the USA.

Transmission lines running from power generated on rivers in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia help to light Broadway, the Mall of America and San Francisco's cable cars.

A new study by the Midcontinent Independent Transmission System Operator estimates that just one proposed transmission line between Manitoba and Minnesota will reduce the wholesale cost of energy in the U.S. Midwest by over $400 million a year. But Canadian sources need help in expediting the presidential permit process for new transmission lines.

Let's also put a priority on securing our electrical grids and pipelines. These vital energy arteries are susceptible to interruption by weather, cyber and other threats.

A 2011 joint report by the Working group for Investment in Reliable and Economic Electric Systems and the Brattle Group estimated that 150,000 to 200,000 full-time jobs could be created annually in the United States, and a proportionate number in Canada, by expanding and upgrading the grid.

Second, let's share with the EPA the rationale behind the revised Canadian coal regulations, both federal and provincial. Coal currently provides 11 per per cent of Canadian electricity generation but two-thirds of this capacity will be retired by 2035. Ontario will shut the last of its coal plants in southern Ontario by the end of 2013.

Third, let's join with the United States in its commitment to lead international efforts on climate change. Negotiating free trade in environmental goods and services should be a joint effort, not just through the WTO but in the Trans Pacific Partnership and eventual (we hope) trade deal with the European Union.

Fourth, let's make people aware that, as President Obama noted, business is already fully engaged in developing clean energy alternatives and in efficiency innovation. The Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance is addressing the environmental impact of the oil sands, recognizing that they need to soon demonstrate visible results related to GHGs, air emissions, water use and land management.

There is much constructive advice contained in reports from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturers Association and their US counterparts. Their recommendations deserve attention.

And we should bring labour to the table because it can offer practical advice on getting the job done, especially in handling temporary workers.

The Obama speech pointed to the successful campaigns on CFCs (leading to the Montreal Ozone Protocol) and acid rain. In both instances the USA effectively followed the Canadian lead.

It is a reminder of the effectiveness of the Brian Mulroney approach to energy and the environment: fixing our own situation allowed us to go to the table with clean hands. In this regard, our forthcoming federal and Alberta greenhouse-gas regulatory regimes for oil and gas and other sectors should be best-in-class.

'Clean hands' is how we can be the energy "superpower" that Prime Minister Harper once spoke about.

Both Barack Obama and Stephen Harper will be thinking increasingly about how history will judge them. As Mr. Obama told his Georgetown audience, the decisions that we make now "will have a profound impact on the world that all of you inherit."

A former diplomat, Colin Robertson is vice president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and a senior advisor to McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.