Obama's aggressive climate-change move and Canada's response

The aggressive U.S. plan to cut carbon emissions is likely to have a "ripple effect" that will increase pressure on Canada to follow in its footsteps, analysts suggest, but how that pressure translates on Canadian soil is still unclear.

Delayed oil and gas rules could be revived as coal law faces scrutiny

The U.S. relies heavily on coal-fired power plants, while Canada's biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is the oil and gas sector. (Charlie Riedel, file/The Associated Press)

The aggressive U.S. plan to cut carbon emissions is likely to have a "ripple effect" that will increase pressure on Canada to follow in its footsteps, analysts suggest.

But how that pressure translates on Canadian soil is still unclear.

Hours after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its proposal for a 30 per cent reduction in power plant emissions by 2030 over 2005 levels, federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq boasted that Canada had already taken steps to regulate power plants here.

Electricity generation, particularly from coal-fired plants, produces the largest portion of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But in Canada, the biggest emitter is the oil and gas industry, which produces one-quarter of emissions.

In a written statement, Aglukkaq turned the tables on the U.S., suggesting the country should "work in concert" with Canada on regulating the oil and gas industry. "The integration of our economies suggests our countries should be taking action together, not alone," said Aglukkaq.

Monday's EPA proposal marks the first time the U.S. is regulating power plants nationwide. The coal sector, the most intensive greenhouse gas emitter, is expected to be the hardest hit.

Analysts suggest the groundbreaking targets set by the U.S. could help break the impasse in brokering a new global deal to curb climate change. World governments will seek to hammer out an agreement at the annual climate-change summit in Paris in December 2015.

"This was a very significant move and will help a long way at prioritizing clean energy," said David Suzuki Foundation science and policy manager Ian Bruce. "It will have a much greater ripple effect around the world."

Some analysts suggest the U.S. proposal could raise the pressure on the Canadian government, a key trading partner and ally, to tighten its own restrictions of carbon-producing sectors.

"When the U.S. acts to regulate emissions, it becomes easier for Canada to act," said Kathryn Harrison, a University of B.C. political scientist who studies U.S. and Canadian energy policies. "We're always worried about impacts on competitiveness if we act alone and the U.S. doesn't act. Well, now the U.S. is acting."

Power resources

The U.S. regulations target the single-largest carbon producer, the energy sector, which is heavily reliant on coal.

Canada isn't as reliant on coal-fired power as the United States, thanks to plentiful hydro-electric power.

Only a few provinces continue to use coal, though it continues to be a substantial energy source for landlocked Alberta and Saskatchewan. Nova Scotia is working to reduce its reliance on coal-fired plants, while Ontario shut down its last plant in early April.

Still, more than 60 per cent of the electricity for Alberta's public grid comes from coal, while it's about 39 per cent across the U.S., according to 2013 figures.

"We see a lot of attention drawn to the oilsands … what's often missed is the fact that the power sector in Alberta has just as large a contribution [to emissions] as the oilsands at this point," said Ben Thibault, director of Pembina Institute's electricity program.

Figures from 2010 suggest that even though coal plays a smaller role in Canada's electricity generation, it was responsible for 77 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions out of the power sector and about 15 per cent of the country's overall emissions.

More recent statistics that take Ontario's significant departure from the coal sector into account aren't available.

"That single action has been the largest reduction in carbon pollution in North America to date," noted Bruce of the Suzuki Foundation.

In 2012, Canada set out regulations for its coal-fired power plants. Environment Minister Aglukkaq said those regulations will reduce emissions by 46 per cent by 2030 over 2005 levels, compared with the U.S.'s 30 per cent reduction.

'Stark contrast'

However, environmentalists suggest the rules for Canada pale in comparison with this week's U.S. announcement.

Any coal-fired unit that begins producing after July 1, 2015, must be equipped with carbon-capture and storage technology that brings its emissions down to that of a high-efficiency natural gas plant.

Existing units must only adhere to the emissions rule once they reach their end-of-life, usually about 45 to 50 years.

"We have plants that won't feel the crunch until the middle of the century," said Thibault. "[That's] in stark contrast to the U.S., where rules require power plants to reduce emissions from 2020 to 2030."

However, Don Wharton, chair of the Canadian Clean Power Coalition representing a group of power plant companies, said the Canadian coal-fired plant regulations are quite strong and effectively require "most of the Canadian coal fleet to shut down."

Wharton doesn't foresee any more stringent regulations on the coal sector, but notes that natural-gas power generation remains an "open question."

Federal rules addressing power plants that use natural gas have been delayed, as have regulations expected for oil and gas production, which includes the oilsands.

"The Canadian government has, at least recently in my view, taken a fairly reserved stance in terms of its action on greenhouse gases," said Wharton. "So it's not evident to me that this is a prompt that will change the Canadian government's attitude."

Wharton and others point to Canada's oil and gas sector — the country's largest greenhouse gas emitter — as the area where Canada will likely focus to make the biggest dent in achieving its emission reductions.

Environment Canada says one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 came from the oil and gas sector. By comparison, electricity accounts for 12 per cent.

'Right direction, wrong direction'

Both Canada and the U.S. have vowed to cut emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

However, last year's emissions trends report by the Canadian government projected that the country will miss its 2020 target by an even larger margin than previously believed. By comparison, the U.S. report stated emissions were falling, but not enough to meet its target.

"The U.S. is going in the right direction. We're going in the wrong direction," said Harrison. "The U.S. is not only going in the right direction, they're taking additional measures to close that compliance gap."

Harrison notes that Canada has promised to regulate the oil and gas industry for years, but the regulations have been delayed.

The political scientist suggests that the U.S. may feel empowered in its negotiations over the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to request Canada to take a tough stance on its oilsands. 

Bruce says Canada has made progress in pockets of Canada, pointing to Ontario's phasing out of coal and B.C.'s carbon tax.

But he adds, "We'd be able to do so much more on driving innovation and prioritizing clean energy if the federal government was a true partner in the fight against climate change."

"And that's a choice I hope they make."