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A portion of the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine is seen from an overlook not far from Fort McMurray, Alta. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

Canada risks becoming the international poster child of unsound resource development if it doesn't do a better job of developing the oilsands, says federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice.

Prentice told a Calgary business audience Monday that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper supports continued expansion of the oilsands, but that large energy companies need to do more as Canada seeks to reach its targets under the Copenhagen climate change accord.

"The development of the oilsands and the environmental footprint of these industrial activities have become an international issue and as such, they now transcend the interests of any single corporation," Prentice said. "What is at issue on the international stage is our reputation as a country."

Prentice announced on Saturday that Canada has committed to the United Nations that it will cut its carbon emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels over the next 10 years.

Countries that attended the climate change conference in December were supposed to outline their own emission-reduction targets before the UN's final deadline of Jan. 31.

'What is at issue on the international stage is our reputation as a country.' —Jim Prentice, environment minister

The accord, which isn't legally binding, offers money to developing nations to help them fight global warming, but it doesn't set new greenhouse gas reduction targets. Instead, countries are to set their own targets, without mandatory limits.

Alberta's oilsands, which contain the second-largest petroleum reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia with an estimated 174 billion barrels, has been under attack from environmentalists who call oilsands crude "dirty oil" because of the amount of greenhouse gases that are produced when it's refined.

But Prentice stopped short Monday of saying when corporations involved in the oilsands will actually see federal rules and regulations that will guide them through the process of reducing greenhouse gases.

Waiting for the U.S.

He said he won't announce any standards for the energy sector until the United States finalizes its position.

"We have to calibrate at the end of the day the obligations we impose on trade-exposed industries with those that are to be imposed in the United States, otherwise we will have discordant energy and environment policies and so some choices have to be made south of the border," Prentice told reporters.

"I think we had an experience already in this country with Kyoto where we began imposing obligations on Canadians that were not imposed on their competitors across the border. This government is not going to repeat that."

Prentice said Canada will harmonize its plans to reduce carbon emissions with the United States and Mexico. He said Canada wants to assume its fair share of responsibility, but needs to do it in a way that is not going to damage jobs, investment and industrial competitiveness.

Federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said waiting for the U.S. to finalize its climate change position is not the answer.

'This is a matter of national sovereignty for Canada. We should have a Canadian, made-in-Canada climate change plan.' —Michael Ignatieff

He said Canada needs fixed hard targets for greenhouse gas reductions and a cap and trade system that would allow companies to trade or buy emission credits to comply with regulations.

"This is a matter of national sovereignty for Canada. We should have a Canadian, made-in-Canada climate change plan," Ignatieff said in Ottawa."The Conservatives argue you can't do anything until the Americans get their targets lined up. We say you can anticipate where we're going to be. Canada can lead here instead of being a follower."

Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think-tank, agrees with Ignatieff.

He said the United States is at least proceeding with concrete plans and Canada should do the same.

"I don't understand why federally in Canada we can't take our own action," he said "We've realized that our international reputation in Canada really depends on our international performance. That depends how we're going to deal with land, air and climate impacts of the oilsands. So we need to address that very swiftly."