by Rick Smith

Provinces representing almost 90 per cent of Canada’s population now have aggressive plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As more jurisdictions get on board, we are getting a clear picture of what stands in the way of Canada improving its environmental record nationally.
Two main holdout provinces have yet to join the carbon club: Alberta and Newfoundland, whose governments have not yet prioritized a future for our children over oil profits
Most other provinces have promised real caps on greenhouse gas emissions that Canadians want. For his part, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is relegating Ottawa to the sidelines with his insistence on flawed “intensity” targets that allow overall emissions to continue to rise.
The lack of leadership from Ottawa will result in a patchwork of regulations across the country – a situation that is bad for business and the environment alike. Worse still, while larger provinces like B.C. and Ontario plan to have their own systems for regulating heavy industry (likely tied in to larger emissions trading systems being set up in various U.S. states), some smaller provinces may rely on a loophole-ridden federal system that is almost certain to fall short of its targets.
So why are the feds so far behind? The major reason Harper is ceding the field to the provinces on global warming lies in his home province, Alberta, and more specifically in the oil sands.
The oil sands are home to the second-largest oil deposit outside of Saudi Arabia. Everything about the oil sands is huge – huge trucks to carry the gooey sand, huge multi-billion-dollar capital investments, and huge infrastructure needs, from pipelines to housing.
The negative impacts of the oil sands are also huge. They have toxic tailing ponds you can see from space that the engineers don’t know what to do with. They eat up huge amounts of the boreal forest. They require huge amounts of natural gas.
And, most significantly for climate change, the oil sands are Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.
For Canada to take meaningful action on climate change means telling Imperial/Exxon, Suncor, Shell and others to clean up their act in the oil sands, something that Harper so far has refused to do. In fact, in a brazen sign of how these companies receive special treatment, Harper is even proposing to give special exemptions from air pollution regulations.
How successful will this head-in-the-oil-sands strategy be over the long term?
There are already signs that if Ottawa refuses to act on the oil sands, others will. California has pioneered a low-carbon fuel standard that is being adopted by other states and now by large Canadian provinces like Ontario and B.C.
The low-carbon fuel standard will bite on the oil sands because oil from there is very carbon-heavy. Unless oil-sands operations are forced to reduce pollution dramatically, their oil may be barred in dozens of North American markets.
While the oil sands are huge, our collective response to global warming must be bigger. Ultimately, Harper or successive prime ministers will come to understand that strong national greenhouse gas targets that include the oil sands will build not only a more united Canada, but also a stronger Canadian economy.

Rick Smith is executive director of Environmental Defence.