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Of popes and pipelines: Canada’s global influence in the spotlight

Canadians can't contain their pride since Mark Carney was chosen to pull Britain out of its economic funk. But his appointment is not the truest measure of Canada's ascendancy in the world.

This country's influence will really be tested in the coming weeks with two momentous decisions. Can Canada get its own pope? And can Canada convince President Barack Obama to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline?

While the two decisions are unrelated, they share a common thread. In both cases, our hopes are dampened because Canada doesn't practise what it preaches.

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The cardinals could disregard Marc Ouellet's candidacy and choose a pope from a country where Catholics show more fervour. Cardinal Ouellet has often clashed with the province where he grew up, which has gone from almost blindingly devout to fiercely secular in the historical heartbeat of the Quiet Revolution.

Likewise, Canada, once praised for its ecological leadership, has become the bête noire of environmentalists, particularly since Stephen Harper's government torpedoed the Kyoto accord that aimed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And that might come back to haunt us: President Obama was resolute, in his State of the Union speech, to "do more to combat climate change."

TransCanada Corp. has long been waiting for the White House to approve its project to carry Alberta's oil down to the Gulf Coast. But as oil sands crude has been vilified as the world's dirtiest fuel, and as protests (and arrests) continue in Washington, approval remains uncertain.

Critics are quick to point out that if the Americans were really serious about tackling greenhouse gas emissions, they would be looking in their own backyard. Coal produced 42 per cent of the electricity in the U.S. in 2011. And coal-fired power plants spew for more carbon dioxide emissions than the oil sands do – 40 times more, if Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is to be believed.

Those critics are perfectly right. Yet this wouldn't be the first time Americans have been hypocritical when it serves their interests. Americans like to depict themselves as defenders of the entrepreneurial spirit and as champions of free trade. But some states will unroll a red carpet of subsidies to attract Canadian companies and manufacturing jobs. And let us not forget the annoying Buy America policies, or the bad faith with which the U.S. government dealt with the never-ending dispute on softwood lumber.

Call it realpolitik, but the better approach would be for Canada to show that it is taking the green criticism seriously. Ottawa needs to step up to the challenge with meaningful action. This would make it easier for Mr. Obama to sell the project to the Democrats who care the most about the environment. Unfortunately, the Harper government hasn't done much to help the President – or Canada's own cause.

A year ago, the federal and Alberta governments set up a program to monitor the air, water and habitat in Northern Alberta, to assess the environmental impact of oil production. But this assessment has been bogged down by unresolved issues between Ottawa and the province. Scientists still don't have the data to prove or to dispel – as Canada hopes – the widely-held belief that oil sands production causes widespread damage. For a federal government set on speeding up environmental reviews, this shows a lack of coherence and seriousness.

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In the meantime, the Harper government is failing to protect the health and security of Canadians, as environmental safeguards are not keeping up with the resource boom. This is not Greenpeace's line – it's the federal Environment Commissioner's conclusion in his last report to Parliament.

The most damning conclusion: Canada is ill-equipped to handle an oil spill should a tanker run aground or a pipeline burst. It could only handle a small leak – nothing close to the Kalamazoo River oil incident of 2010.

This revives British Columbia's worst fears. After that, try selling the Northern Gateway pipeline? And this inadequate preparedness is certainly not lost on Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, who is asking for more technical and environmental information before committing to a pipeline that would run across Quebec on its way to New Brunswick.

And if Canadians can't even muster enough support to build a pipeline on their own land, why would Americans green-light TransCanada's project? Some time soon, we will see the white smoke floating over the White House, but it may well carry some bad news.

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About the Author
Chief Quebec correspondent

Sophie Cousineau is The Globe and Mail’s chief Quebec correspondent. She has been working as a journalist for more than 20 years, and was La Presse’s business columnist prior to joining the Globe in 2012. Ms. Cousineau earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from McGill University. More

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