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Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ottawa stalls on emissions rules Add to ...

Environment Minister Jim Prentice is signalling further delays in imposing greenhouse gas emission standards on the oil sector and other industries, saying Ottawa does not want to lose jobs and investment by driving activity out of the country.

The Conservative government is waiting for the United States to decide how it will impose climate-change regulations before acting here. And the U.S. Congress could take up to two years to pass legislation that sets caps on greenhouse gas emissions, Mr. Prentice told a Senate committee Thursday.

In the meantime, he said, Ottawa will pursue regulations to reduce emissions in transportation, which account for 27 per cent of Canada's total, and in the electric power sector, which accounts for 16 per cent.

But he said Ottawa is being more cautious when dealing with industries that compete internationally for investment or markets, including the oil and gas industry, which accounts for 20 per cent of the country's emissions.

"The trade-exposed area is the most difficult," Mr. Prentice said. "This is where you have to deal with environmental objectives but we have to do it in a way where we don't face carbon leakage, which is to say the loss of jobs and investments."

As the U.S. and Canada contemplate climate regulations, both have expressed fears of the potential loss of investment in energy-intensive industries to developing countries that have more lax environmental rules.

This week, the Harper government recommitted to a campaign pledge that it would prevent companies from exporting raw bitumen - unprocessed oil from the oil sands - to be processed elsewhere in order to take advantage of weaker regulation.

The issue of "carbon leakage" looms large in the oil sands as Chinese state-controlled companies increase their investments, and Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. moves forward with a proposal for a pipeline to the West Coast to export bitumen to Pacific Rim markets.

Asia's largest refiner, China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec), has agreed to purchase a 9-per-cent stake in the Syncrude oil sands project, which will give it access to a growing source of bitumen and a veto over any plans by its six ownership partners to spend large sums on a plant used to upgrade the bitumen in Canada.

The government has not spelled out how it would prevent companies from processing resources elsewhere to avoid onerous regulatory burdens, though one option would be an export tariff. At this point, however, it's not clear how burdensome the Canadian rules would be.

Ottawa has committed to reducing Canada's greenhouse gas production by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. Emission levels in 2008 declined by 2 per cent from 2007, the government said Thursday, reflecting a slowdown in economic activity and greater use of hydroelectric power.

The opposition is trying to force the Conservative government to take more strenuous action on climate change.

An NDP private member's bill on emissions won the support of the Liberals and Bloc Québécois in passing a Commons vote on Wednesday. It faces a final vote this spring before going to the Senate, where Liberal and independents will determine its fate. It would commit the government to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050, and require independently reviewed government reports on progress toward those targets.

But when the opposition has managed to pass environmental legislation on previous occasions, the government has simply ignored it.

In the U.S., a non-partisan group of senators is expected to table climate legislation next week. It will reportedly not include a cap on industrial emissions, but would instead impose taxes on gasoline and other petroleum products.

Mr. Prentice on Thursday ruled out any federal "carbon tax."

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