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Albertans need a climate-change reality check

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

CALGARY — A strange and alarming disconnect has opened between what the Alberta government sees and believes about climate-change policy, and what is actually emerging in the United States.

Alberta, which accounts for about 32 per cent of Canada's emissions and is home to the "dirty" oil from the tar sands, seems convinced that threats from the south are hollow.

Americans need, and will always need, our oil, the provincial government insists. They will not cut it off. They will be impressed by what we have done, and what we are doing, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They will see our own intensity reduction scheme for emissions that came into effect on July 1, 2007. They will be impressed by our $2-billion commitment to carbon capture and storage projects that the province will approve by summer.

Except that word is these projects are much more expensive than anyone thought. There will be fewer projects than anticipated and therefore a smaller emissions reduction. Even if everything worked out - highly unlikely, by the way - carbon capture and storage would only take five million tonnes from a province that in 2005 emitted 210 million tonnes and whose documents, prerecession, called for an increase in emissions of 20 per cent by 2020.

The threats to Alberta's complacency come not from the usual targets of provincial scorn - the East, Central Canada or the federal government - but from Washington and states such as California.

In Ottawa, the Harper government increasingly has no policy, but is just waiting to latch on to whatever emerges in the United States. Waiting for Obama is the way to describe the Canadian position.

In Washington, something of potentially enormous consequence occurred last week. The Environment Protection Agency issued a "proposed finding" (now subject to public comment) that greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health. Said the EPA, "This finding confirms that greenhouse gas pollution is a serious problem now and for future generations ... The greenhouse gases that are responsible for [climate change] endanger public health and welfare within the meaning of the Clean Air Act."

This "finding" followed a review required by the U.S. Supreme Court. It means that the EPA could pass, if necessary, mandatory regulations reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For the moment, the EPA says it prefers the U.S. Congress to deal with the problem. But the "finding" suggests that if Congress fails to act, the Obama administration, through the EPA, will.

In Congress, a host of bills are washing around. The largest and most consequential emerged from a House committee chairman, Henry Waxman. It would create a nationwide cap-and-trade system to lower emissions, impose a host of new regulations, and require petroleum products from sources that create fewer emissions than the tar sands.

The same sort of legislation is being considered in California.

If passed, these regulations would stop tar-sands oil from being sold in the United States. Alternative sources would have to be found and, Alberta pretensions notwithstanding, these are available at whatever the world prices at the time.

Now, we are still in the early days of skirmishing. The U.S. Congress is emphatically not like the Canadian Parliament or the Alberta Legislature. It has a mind of its own. It's full of competing interests, even within the governing Democratic Party.

That President Barack Obama and Mr. Waxman want a nationwide cap-and-trade system, with companies buying permits to start the system, does not mean such a system will enter quickly into force. Coal, electricity, auto makers and petroleum lobbyists are going to have a field day scaring people, painting the most dreadful consequences for the U.S. economy.

What we are seeing, therefore, in the EPA ruling, the Obama proposals and the Waxman bill, are the first markers being put down for a protracted debate, the end product of which is unknown.

With Ottawa having abandoned any pretense of having its own policy, and Alberta stubbornly divorced from emerging North American (and world) realities, Canadians can only wait until their country's policies are framed in Washington, after which they will have no choice but to act.

That's what happens to a country without a serious national policy and to a one-party province shaped by too many illusions.

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