Canada touts carbon pollution cuts as Keystone XL pressure builds

Pressure is building on Canada to find ways to lower its climate pollution in a bid to smooth the way for the Obama administration’s approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

But Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, stressed Thursday that the country is already working to cut greenhouse gas emissions — often in concert with the United States.

In a meeting with reporters arranged by the American Petroleum Institute, Doer laid out a laundry list of Canada’s environmental achievements:

  • Canada is on track to meet its Copenhagen Accord commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
  • Canada has adopted the same tailpipe emissions standards for light duty vehicles as the United States.
  • Canada has signed on to a strategy for dealing with black carbon, or soot.

The country also draws nearly two thirds of its electric power from renewable sources, Doer noted.

“We are at 64 percent renewable for electric generation,” Doer said. “So that is not insignificant.”

Doer’s pitch came just days after reports that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent a letter to President Barack Obama proposing “joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector” as a means to win Keystone XL approval.

Earlier this week, Canada’s natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, met with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and said his country was committed to collaborating on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Oliver stressed that Canada’s pledge to curb emissions — including from Alberta’s oil sands, which would supply much of the hydrocarbons carried by Keystone XL — was not part of a horse trade.

The backdrop for the carbon-cutting talk is Obama’s June 25 vow that Keystone XL would only be approved if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Environmentalists have downplayed the possibility that Canada could make up for a surge in greenhouse gas emissions tied to the energy-intensive production of bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands.

Daniel Kessler, a media campaigner with 350.org, called the possible Harper offer a “last-ditch bait and switch by the Canadian government.”

“There is no way the pipeline can meet President Obama’s climate test,” Kessler said. “The Harper government has systematically weakened environmental protections while doubling down on tar sands production.”

Doer argued that much of what Canada is doing already offsets the heat-warming emissions tied to Alberta oil development. For instance, he suggested, while some natural gas is flared at oil wells in North Dakota and other parts of the United States, flaring is not as common in Canada.

“We have rules in Alberta, today, on requirements to reduce greenhouse gases by 12 percent per barrel or face an innovation (fee),” Doer said. “I would suggest that we are not standing still.”

“We are not perfect,” he added. “We have to keep moving forward.”

Analysts suggest there are things both the Canadian government and the company behind Keystone XL, TransCanada Corp., can do to ensure the pipeline meets Obama’s bright line on significantly exacerbating carbon pollution. For instance, the government and oil companies could invest in efforts to capture carbon dioxide produced when fossil fuels are burned. Carbon capture and sequestration technology has proved expensive and challenging in the United States, particularly in connection with power plants.

The United States and Canada also could agree to collaborate on ways to pare emissions from oil sands development.

That possibility was forecasted by the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year.

In a letter blasting the State Department’s analysis of Keystone XL’s carbon footprint, the EPA suggested a better analysis of “specific ways that the U.S. might work with Canada . . . to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of oil sands crude.” According to Cynthia Giles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, that collaboration could include “a joint focus on carbon capture and storage projects and research, as well as ways to improve energy efficiency associated with extraction technologies.”

The State Department said about 830,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide would be unleashed every year if Keystone XL is built, though that conclusion has been widely disputed by environmentalists, who say the government analysis ignored the significant costs and limitations of alternative options for transporting oil sands crude across the United States.

The Keystone XL pipeline would connect the Alberta oil sands with refineries along the Gulf Coast. TransCanada Corp. first asked the U.S. for a permit to build the border-crossing pipeline nearly five years ago, but it remains under review at the State Department.

In the meantime, the company has nearly completed construction of a southern leg linking Cushing, Okla., with Nederland, Texas.

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