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U.S. Congress subverts Prentice's energy message

Environment Minister Jim Prentice at a press conference in Ottawa on Wed., June 23.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Environment Minister Jim Prentice on Wednesday trumpeted the Harper government's climate-change action in advance of this week's global leaders summit, but his upbeat message was undermined when 50 members of U.S. Congress announced their opposition to growing imports from Canada's "filthy" oil sands.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to meet leaders from the Group of 20 nations, Mr. Prentice turned the spotlight on Canada's relatively clean electricity sector by announcing the government will require utilities to phase out coal-fired power plants in the coming decades.

In an interview, the minister argued that Canada does not get enough credit - domestically or internationally - for the fact it has one of the cleanest electricity sectors in the industrialized world in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

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He said Canada is moving more aggressively than any of its global competitors to reduce the electricity sector's emissions, which account for 17 per cent of the country's total. The oil sands produce 5 per cent of the country's emissions, the minister said, though he acknowledged that figure will grow dramatically given the industry's aggressive expansion plans.

In Washington, a group of 50 members of Congress and environmental groups urged the State Department to block the construction of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry 500,000 barrels of oil sands crude to refineries in the gulf coast of Texas. Because the pipeline crosses international boundaries, the State Department must approve it.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the members of Congress said the pipeline would "undermine America's clean energy future and international leadership on climate change."

In a teleconference, the politicians and environmentalists compared the oil sands environmental impact to the devastation caused by BP PLC's blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

"As oil continues to pour into the Gulf, we should take a step back and consider the wisdom of trusting these oil companies that are out to make a profit and with no thoughts about anything but oil, oil and cutting corners to make higher profits for their shareholders," said Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee.

"We need to stop promoting filthy tar sands that pollute the air we breathe and water we drink and start increasing development of clean, domestic renewable technologies."

Calgary-based TransCanada, the largest pipeline company in North America, rejected any suggestion it was cutting corners on safety, and disagreed with the notion that the environmental review of the pipeline should include an assessment of oil sands pollution.

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In the face of international criticism of the oil sands, Mr. Prentice prefers to talk about electricity sector, which produces far more emissions than does the oil sands.

"With the exception of France [which relies heavily on nuclear] Canada will have the cleanest electricity sector of any major industrialized country in the world," he said.

The Canadian government - and the oil industry - argue that U.S.-based environmental groups and some members of Congress focus unfairly on the oil sands as a source of emissions.

Mr. Prentice said the American electricity sector emits 60 times more emissions than the oil sands. The United States has more than 600 coal plants, with no plans in place to regulate emissions from those plants, he noted.

Under the regulations to be introduced next year and take effect in 2015, utilities would not be able to replace their current coal plants with new ones, unless they are equipped with technology to capture greenhouse gas emissions and sequester them underground.

Mr. Prentice said two-thirds of the country's 51 current coal units should be retired by 2025, and they will have to be replaced with low-emitting electricity such as clean coal, natural gas, hydro, nuclear, wind and tidal power.

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The regulations will not force the industry to reduce emissions from existing plants, and will not achieve the minister's previous pledge to have 90 per cent of the country's power supply come from non-emitting sources by 2020.

The Harper government has pledged to reduce emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020 - a target that matches U.S. President Barack Obama's stated goal. G20 leaders are expected to recommit to negotiating a global agreement on combatting climate change, after reaching a broad deal at the Copenhagen summit last December.

Mr. Prentice also announced Canada will provide $400-million this year for an international climate fund. He said the investment represents "Canada's fair share" of a $10-billion (U.S.) per year fund to help poor countries combat climate change. The "fast start fund" was negotiated at the Copenhagen climate change conference last December as a $30-billion, three-year effort that will grow in future years.

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