Such a "short-sighted" move would be another blow to Canada's international reputation when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and spark more serious consequences at home, Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley said Friday.
"It is not in the national interest to continue with coal-burning policies that fail to contribute to the global effort to combat climate change," Bradley wrote in a letter to federal Environment Minister Peter Kent.
"Nor is it in the national interest to continue with coal-burning policies that fail to protect the health of Canadians, especially young Canadians."
Bradley was reacting to a Globe and Mail report that Ottawa is offering the provinces a way to avoid new regulations that would force companies to clean up or shut down their old coal-fired plants, or require new plants to be low-emission designs.
Citing provincial and industry sources, the newspaper reported that Kent and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have privately indicated that they are willing to provide flexibility on how new power-plant emissions rules are implemented.
According to the report, the government is willing to cede regulation of power-sector emissions to the provinces, as long as they have rules in place that would achieve equivalent reductions in emissions set under 1999's Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).
Adam Sweet, a spokesman for Kent, said the provincial equivalency component doesn't represent a shift in the government's position.
Any provincial provisions must either meet or exceed the level of environmental protection mandated under the act, he said.
It was all spelled out in draft regulations that were published online last August for public comment, said Sweet.
A review of the draft rules is still underway and the Ontario government was involved in the process as recently as the week prior to Christmas, Sweet added. No final decisions have been made.
"This is not new," he said. "These are draft regulations published five months ago and they're part of the CEPA."
But Bradley argues the regulation of coal emissions shouldn't be left in the hands of the provinces.
"It's always good to have national, consistent regulations that affect the entire country, as opposed to a hodgepodge of regulations under the jurisdiction of provincial governments," he said.
Ontario still burns coal, but Bradley said his government has made great strides in phasing it out and plans to shut down all coal-fired plants by 2014.
The lack of national regulations will send a signal to the rest of the world that Canada "is not interested" in reducing emissions after withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol — the world's only binding climate treaty, he added.
Kent announced in mid-December that Canada was ditching the treaty, just two hours after returning from marathon United Nations climate talks in South Africa.
Environmental groups have panned the move and both the United Nations and China have asked the Tories to reconsider their decision.
Canada signed Kyoto in the late 1990s, but neither the current Conservative government nor their Liberal predecessors met targets.