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Following the Americans on climate change -- until they do something

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Second in a series on the politics of oil and Canada's climate change goals.

New Environment Minister Peter Kent has a big problem. For five years, the Conservative mantra on climate change has been that Canada must harmonize our targets and programs with the U.S.. That was an easy cop out, as long as the Americans were doing what Harper's government was doing -- nothing. It's now show time for the new Minister and the Harper government, because the Americans are at last doing something.

The first step towards any regulation of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) is to begin forcing emitters to get a permit. Once that is done, all kinds of options are possible -- from directly regulating the allowable emissions or perhaps establishing some kind of emissions trading for the purpose of reducing emissions.

Commencing this month a system of permits will be in place for all U.S. "large emitters" of GHG emissions. The list of industries which are large emitters includes power plants, refineries, cement plants, iron and steel, pulp and paper, and any large commercial or institutional boilers. All new facilities and expansions immediately require GHG permits. By July, 2011 all industrial facilities that put out 100,000 tonnes of GHGs per year will need a permit. The level of emissions that will be allowed are not yet determined, but in 2011 standards will be set for two sectors: power plants and refineries.

There is also a very interesting twist on federalism and environmental regulation south of the border. In 2008, 12 U.S. States, led by New York, sued the Bush administration over the failure of the U.S. federal government to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. Later a Supreme Court decision affirmed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have the authority to regulate GHGs. 
The new GHG permits are part of an agreement by the Obama EPA with the suing states, and it ensures that no state can issue permits below the EPA federal standard. It also includes a provision that the federal government will assume the authority to issue permits in seven states where there are not existing air quality permits that can be used for GHGs.

So what is Mr. Kent's response to the American permit system for large industrial emitters?  "We will not follow their course," said Kent to CBC's Evan Solomon on January 6 -- his first full day as the Minister of Environment.  Kent did affirm that two modest regulatory proposals remain on the government's agenda. Those involve some regulation of emissions from coal fired electricity plants and a joint initiative with the Americans on heavy truck emissions. 

Harper's government has no intention to go beyond reporting and to demand permits for GHGs of all large emitters. It will not follow the Americans by using the Canada Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and its air quality provisions to establish GHG permits or to set emission levels. While it remains to be seen what might emerge for coal fired electricity plants in Canada, neither refineries or oil sands operations will be regulated.  Our federal government won't take a leadership role by establishing baseline federal standards for all provinces to meet. So much for harmonizing with Americans.

It is interesting that the Minister could be so definitive in what Canada would not do on his first day on the job. It bears out the opposition line that the former television news anchor now reads the news provided by the PMO. Kent blew the opportunity that a new Minister has to reassure environmentalists that he will be serious about climate change.  Instead he launched his tenure by talking about "ethical oil."  It may well be the worst start ever for a Canadian Minister of Environment.

Kent's performance might even have ENGOs nostalgic for Jim Prentice, in spite of the international embarrassment for Canada that he presided over at Copenhagen. According to Wikileaks in December, Prentice was concerned over our international reputation and was getting ready to step in to regulate the oil industry.

Kent looks weak also in comparison to the partisan John Baird, Harper's first Environment Minister in 2007. Baird actually floated a policy on greenhouse gas regulations that met our Kyoto target -- only eight years late -- and he proposed energy efficiency regulations on all large industrial emitters. Those proposed regulations were never adopted and by 2009 the Conservatives dropped the plan altogether as they bunkered down in the lead up to Copenhagen.

There is a reason why the Harperites abandoned their own 2007 plan and are now breaking their commitment to follow the Americans. Bitumen exports and monster pipelines make any practical GHG plan almost impossible. We will look at the numbers on our climate change promises and the Alberta bitumen sands in the next posting.

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