Alberta hasn't always had the best reputation on the world stage. A year ago, the European Union nearly put a formal "dirty" label on oil coming from the bitumen-rich oilsands in the northern part of the province.

The characterization still exists today, with U.S. President Barack Obama repeating the "dirty" depiction in his rejection of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

But as the head of Canada's largest energy company strolls through the United Nations climate change conference in Paris, he says the reputation is changing, slowly.

"I think it's slightly outdated," Suncor chief executive Steve Williams said Tuesday in an interview with CBC News. "We are earning our way back onto the stage."

Suncor is part of Canada's delegation at the global conference aimed at securing an agreement between all countries to take action on climate change.

So far, the oilsands have barely been mentioned in discussions inside the airplane hangers of Le Bourget, a suburb of Paris, where the negotiations are being held.

Williams believes each province, state and country should have a carbon tax. Alberta has not only announced plans for a carbon levy, but also a limit on oilsands growth and an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power plants.

Alberta Oilsands emissions

Some oilsands companies are in favour of a carbon tax in Alberta, as long as it applies to everyone in the province. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

"If you look at what is actually happening in Alberta, we're now leading the way," said Williams.

While he calls the Alberta's plan big and bold, Williams confessed he is working to convince other players in the oilpatch to get on board with the new policies. 

"What you'll find in the more forward-thinking companies is they have already been pricing carbon in and taking a view on the future," said Williams.

What's clear is that the industry is entering a new world where the companies with the strongest balance sheets and most efficient projects are the ones that will survive. With oil prices expected to remain low for the foreseeable future, no wonder Husky Energy's chief executive Tuesday described the oil and gas sector as entering "into uncharted territory."

Technology top priority

While there is frequent talk about the need for innovation to reduce the environmental footprint of the oil and gas sector, companies haven't always used the technologies that already exist.

"In a high commodity price environment, it's easier to get away with being less efficient, but where prices are now, the squeeze is on," said Yvan Champagne, president of Blue Source Canada, a company that sells carbon offsets and develops greenhouse gas reduction projects. He spoke with CBC News Tuesday in Paris.

Champagne suggests one of the biggest opportunities in Alberta is to capture vented methane emissions. In many cases, it hasn't been economic to do this in the past. But with the proposed carbon tax, it may make much more sense in the future. 

Yvan Champagne says companies haven't always used the technologies that already exist1:26

Typically, there is a strong correlation between the greenhouse gas intensity of an operation and its costs, said Champagne, and that's why there is a real opportunity to be more competitive and reduce emissions at the same time.

Tighter financial conditions focus the mind.

Williams admitted that industry hasn't always implemented the latest innovations. However, he said more technology is vital and increased funding will likely flow to the Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), an organization representing 13 companies aimed at improving the oilsands' environmental performance.

There's no question that the energy sector is going through a period of disruption caused by environmental policy and low oil prices. But disruption can spur innovation, and a carbon tax combined with a tough price environment could be what's needed to lower emissions and costs at the same time.

If that happens, Williams will be right and the dirty oil label might be left behind.