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Energy and Resources Boss of biggest oil sands player calls for tougher action on climate change

Suncor President and CEO Steve Williams talks to shareholders before his speech during Suncor Energy's annual general meeting in Edmonton on Tuesday, April 29, 2014.

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Calls for tougher carbon pricing are coming from what may, on the surface, seem like an unlikely source: Calgary business leaders, including the boss of Canada's biggest oil sands player.

"Climate change is happening," Suncor Energy Inc. CEO Steve Williams said in a speech Friday. "Doing nothing is not an option we can choose."

Williams made his remarks at an event hosted by Canada's Ecofiscal Commission, a group focused on environmental and economic policy.

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"We're trying to move Canada toward a position of leadership," he said. "That's not how we're viewed around the world at the moment. We're viewed to be quite the opposite."

The carbon footprint of the oil sands has been a big factor in the debate over whether new pipelines that would bring that crude to market, such as Keystone XL, ought to be built.

Some observers have said a more stringent climate policy under Alberta's newly elected NDP government may actually help the industry on that score.

Alberta has had a carbon pricing mechanism in place since 2007 – the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation – that expires at the end of June. It charges a $15-per-tonne levy to large emitters that go above a certain intensity threshold.

Williams told reporters the policy, the first of its kind in North America, was a "great start," but there's "an opportunity to move on."

The discussion at the event centred on provincial rather than federal climate action, even after Ottawa's announcement last week that it's aiming to get emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

"The truth is that a federal government of any political stripe would face significant challenges instituting a top-down, one-size-fits-all carbon pricing policy, especially if associated revenues would then flow out of the provinces," said Ecofiscal Commission chairman Chris Ragan.

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Justin Smith, director of policy, research and government relations at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said Alberta's current climate policy is not as effective as it should be.

"It's just a misallocation of resources," he said.

Smith said he understands why businesses might have some "trepidation" about a higher carbon price. But he said the notion that environmental reform necessarily threatens businesses' competitiveness represents a "false choice."

Smith cited as an example restaurants that resisted smoking bans at first but continued to thrive.

Any change to the policy must be "broad-based" – applied to energy consumers and producers alike, Suncor's Williams said.

And although there's a sense of urgency, Williams cautioned against rushing any climate policy changes through.

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"We could do an awful lot of damage over the next few months and years if we get this wrong," he said.

Amin Asadollahi of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, says a $30-per-tonne carbon price like in British Columbia would be a good starting point, as it's likely to deliver results without harming industry returns.

He said it makes sense to move on it sooner rather than later.

"Inaction results in increased costs. That's costs that my generation will have to take on and pass to future generations."

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