As the U.S. State Department delays approval of TransCanada Corp's Keystone pipeline, which would link Alberta's oil sands to refineries and ports in Texas, speculation has emerged that Canada could take further action on the climate to help make it easier for the United States to approve the project.
Gary Doer, Canadian ambassador to the United States, told Reuters in an interview his country has taken various steps on climate, including helping to hash out an international deal with Obama in Copenhagen in 2009, aligning with Washington on car emissions limits in 2010, and working with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 on reducing black carbon emissions in the Arctic.
When asked if Canada can do more to help sweeten the pot for Keystone, Doer said, "We're not interested in gimmicks, we're interested in real action, both on energy security in North America and in reducing greenhouse gases."
He said substantial action on climate takes time, citing new Canadian rules on coal that took 18 months to develop.
Doer said he had no information about when the State Department would release an environmental assessment on the line, the next step it must take before a final decision is expected around the middle of the year. But his instinct was it could come within a month.
The pipeline splits important factions of U.S. President Barack Obama's base. Many environmentalists oppose the project because oil sands are carbon intensive to produce, while labor leaders support the pipeline for the jobs it would bring to states along its path.
Doer took issue with environmentalists who say the Keystone pipeline, approval of which has been pending for 4-1/2 years, would boost emissions.
"This pipeline is displacing comparable greenhouse gases, not creating new ones," he said, referring to the pipeline's potential to displace U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil, which is also carbon intensive to produce. "So we are not participating in gimmicks."
Still, Canada's Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, told reporters last week his government was close to unveiling long-delayed rules on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands. He did not give details.
Doer was not worried that John Kerry, the new U.S. Secretary of State, has been an ardent advocate of taking action on global warming and highlighted the risks of climate change in his first foreign policy address this week.
Kerry said the United States must have the courage to make investments necessary to protect the environment from climate change for the next generations.
Doer pointed out that TransCanada, not Washington, would be making investments in the pipeline. He also repeated comments made by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in late 2011 that it is better for the United States to import oil from Canada than from the Middle East and elsewhere.
HOLIER THAN THOU
Canada gets much of its power generation from renewable sources such as hydroelectric power, which Doer said was an indication of its seriousness on climate.
"We don't want to be holier than thou, but over 70 percent of our energy for electricity is renewable. The United States has a little bit of business to do" in reaching that level, he said.
Doer is expected to press the case for the Keystone pipeline with a number of U.S. state governors who have gathered in Washington for the National Governors Association meeting.
Among them is expected to be Nebraska governor Dave Heineman, who opposed an initial route of the pipeline. Since TransCanada crafted a different path to avoid sensitive ecological areas, Heineman now supports the project as do all of the other governors along the pipeline's path.
The Texas-to-Oklahoma leg of the project, which does not need State Department approval because it does not cross an international border, is already under construction.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford will also be in Washington this weekend talking with governors and outgoing U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar about the pipeline.
When asked by reporters on Thursday in Edmonton if Alberta would raise its carbon levy, currently C$15 per metric ton (1.1023 tons), Redford said there was no plan for that any time soon.
She emphasized that her province has redirected the current carbon payments into new technologies and that it believes in sustainable development in the oil sands.
Alberta warned this week that depressed prices for its oil sands crude, due partly to the lack of new pipeline space, could help push this year's budget deficit to C$4 billion, more than four times higher than initial projections.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Jeffrey Jones in Calgary; editing by Ros Krasny and Jim Marshall)