Canada in Quandary Over Gas Emissions

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 5, 2006

TORONTO, Oct. 4 -- Canada's conservative government, groping for a new policy on climate change, is facing a dilemma over how to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from the hugely profitable Alberta oil fields in western Canada.

At a meeting with auto industry executives Tuesday, government officials backed away from reports that they would impose California's tough emissions standards on the auto industry in eastern Canada. The curbs had drawn loud protests from auto industry supporters, who contend that the oil fields should bear the greater brunt in addressing climate change.

The meeting exposed bitter differences between eastern and western Canada about who should shoulder the cost of curbing greenhouse gases.

Critics said the government's retreat -- officials told auto executives that new regulations would be negotiated with them over the next three years -- shows that Ottawa is floundering in its attempt to produce an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, elected in January as head of a Conservative Party government, has said that the 1997 international agreement to limit greenhouse gases is unworkable, but he has yet to produce the alternative strategy he promised.

"They are trying to convince Canadians they are doing something on the environment when they are not," said John Bennett, a senior policy adviser with the Sierra Club of Canada. "It's just spin."

The environment minister, Rona Ambrose, publicly summoned executives of the big automakers and the autoworkers union to Ottawa on Tuesday, after leaked reports that she would announce tougher standards as part of a new government climate change plan.

But the executives emerged from the meeting visibly relieved that the reports had proved baseless. "Nothing of substance was discussed," an official of Honda Canada, Jim Miller, told the Toronto Star. "It's the start of consultations."

Ambrose declined to comment after the meeting, but in Parliament on Wednesday she described the gathering as "very positive" and said the automakers "understand that Canadians want cleaner air."

Critics said the government backed off because tougher new policies could set off a fight between Ontario in eastern Canada, second only to Michigan in the production of cars for North America, and Alberta, Harper's oil-producing constituency in the west.

The oil extracted from Alberta's immense deposits of tarry sand has made Canada the leading supplier to the United States and fueled an economic boom. A report from the office of Canada's auditor general last week criticized the past and current governments for failing to curb the increase in greenhouse gases that has accompanied the boom.

The carbon dioxide released during oil production accounted for 28 percent of Canada's increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990, the report noted. As the oil sands project grows, emissions may double between 2004 and 2015.

"There is no doubt the oil sands are the elephant in the room," said Matthew Bramley, director of climate change studies at the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit research group. "Canada cannot have a credible climate change policy until it confronts emissions from the oil sands."

Environmental groups say they believe the oil producers could greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions through such techniques as burying the carbon dioxide. They also argue that Canada could engage in transactions known as carbon trading to remain compliant with the Kyoto pact's quotas. Under this kind of trading, the country would swap the right to emit carbon dioxide gas in return for investing in carbon-absorbing projects.

But the government has said it opposes adopting such a program or taxing the oil producers to encourage such measures. Ambrose has "given a free ride to her friends in the oil industry," Nathan Cullen, a lawmaker with the opposition New Democratic Party, said Wednesday.

Ambrose's meeting with automakers sparked fierce criticism that Ontario's auto industry could face tougher greenhouse gas regulations than the western-based oil producers.

"The one thing we will not abide is any effort by the national government to unduly impose greenhouse gas emission reductions on Ontario at the expense of our auto sector," Ontario's premier, Dalton McGuinty, said Tuesday.

He was joined by Canadian Auto Workers Union President Buzz Hargrove, who said tougher restrictions on the ailing auto industry are untenable.

"We are faced with an industry losing billions and workers losing their jobs," Hargrove told reporters before the meeting. "The oil and gas industry is making billions of dollars. If someone's going to contribute something, surely there should be some balance."

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