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Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver answers questions from the media following an speech he made the Toronto Region Board of Trade in this file photo.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has moved from defence to offence, deflecting environmental criticism of Canada's oil sands by turning the spotlight on the U.S.'s emission-intensive coal-fired power sector.

In a Tuesday speech to a high-profile energy conference in New York City, Mr. Oliver sought to minimize the environmental impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and said burning coal to generate electricity represents the world's biggest climate threat.

The Conservative government faces intense criticism over the Keystone project from U.S. environmentalists, including actor Robert Redford, who released a video this week in which he claimed the pipeline would spur production of the "world's dirtiest oil" in Alberta.

At the same time, U.S. President Barack Obama is due to release this week long-anticipated draft regulations for the U.S. power sector that critics are decrying as a "war on coal." The administration is bracing for a political fight in traditionally Democratic coal states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. The U.S. relies on coal for 41 per cent of its electricity, although that share has been decreasing with the advent of cheap shale gas.

"Coal is the single largest source of GHG emissions in the world," Mr. Oliver said. He added that the International Energy Agency cited the increasing use of coal-fired power as the "greatest threat to a low-carbon future," and that the agency called on governments to take action to address it.

"Canada is taking such action," he said. Ottawa passed regulations last summer that will make it impossible to build a traditional coal plant, and will require existing ones to close after 50 years of life.

Mr. Oliver's comments highlight the fact that while the U.S. is looking for greater Canadian action in the oil sector, the U.S. has yet to impose emissions rules on its own coal-fired electricity sector or its oil and gas sector.

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Ottawa is expected to release draft regulations for the oil industry by the end of the year, though they will likely slow but not stop the growth of oil-sands emissions.

But emissions from coal plants are trending down in the U.S., while greenhouse gases from the oil sands are growing dramatically, said Daniel Weiss, of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington. He noted that overall U.S. emissions are down 7 per cent from 2005 levels, twice the Canadian reduction.