04/14/2015 05:18 EDT | Updated 06/14/2015 05:59 EDT

Harper Government Claims 'Exemplary Record' Of Environmental Performance

OTTAWA - The Harper government is moving to embrace provincial climate change actions even as it distances itself from carbon-pricing policies that will soon cover much of the country.

The tortuous, election-year dance was in full evidence Tuesday as Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford delivered the Conservative energy gospel to a business audience in New York while provincial and territorial leaders talked climate policy in Quebec City.

In a speech to an energy conference, Rickford asserted that his government's energy policies are growing the economy "while enhancing our already exemplary record of environmental performance."

Canada, however, is nowhere close to meeting its 2020 carbon-reduction targets under the 2009 Copenhagen accord and Ottawa recently implored provincial governments to provide it with more information on their climate plans as it prepares to negotiate a post-2020 international climate treaty later this year.

No provincial actions were mentioned in Rickford's speech, although he did tout Canada's sixth-place global ranking in renewable energy investment last year — a success that the recent international report's authors largely attributed to provincial policy measures.

And he reprised a long-standing, unfulfilled Conservative climate policy promise, stating, "We are ready and willing to work with the U.S. to harmonize environmental standards in other areas as well, such as oil and gas."

The Harper government has been promising to regulate Canada's oil and gas sector since 2007.

In a conference call after his address, Rickford maintained his government is working with the provinces and territories on climate measures.

"First of all, we are a partner," he said.

Some 800 kilometres to the north, premiers emerged from the Quebec City summit to implore the federal government to get "actively involved" with them immediately on a climate plan.

"One order of government cannot ask the other to do the job," said Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, the host of the summit. "It must be done together."

The disconnect didn't end there.

Rickford wouldn't comment on Ontario's new cap-and-trade carbon-pricing system announced this week, saying he hasn't seen the details.

"The provinces are best positioned on that point in matters of policy, whether it's carbon pricing or a carbon tax," Rickford said, before launching into another attack on federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

"We are completely uninterested in what's being proposed by the Liberal party, which is the effective equivalent to a health transfer to the tune of $34 billion."

Trudeau has promised to allow provinces to develop their own policies, which he then proposes to link under a national carbon reduction target.

Attacking Trudeau for a policy he hasn't enunciated, while studiously avoiding being critical of provinces for policies they unveiled with much fanfare, illustrates the needle the Conservatives are attempting to thread.

David McLaughlin, the former head of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, said the Conservative position has "evolved" in that it is now explicitly taking into account the role of the provinces.

In 2012 the government asked the roundtable for a report on provincial actions, the first time they had sought such information.

What the roundtable determined was that three quarters of all carbon emission reductions were coming from provincial actions, with about a quarter from federal actions, a proportion that McLaughlin said still holds true.

It was the last report the roundtable delivered before the government pulled the plug on the federally funded advisory body.

"At one level, we are seeing more engagement — even if it's a little bumpy — between the two levels of government. That's essential because we're a federation," said McLaughlin, a one-time chief of staff to Brian Mulroney.

"What they are not acknowledging is that the provinces are making the most contribution to actual emission reductions."

Trudeau's position of giving the provinces free rein and then acting as a national co-ordinator may ultimately be the Conservative choice, too, he said.

"I think the federal government is backing into that position. It's a way of diverting attention and deflecting ambition towards other jurisdictions."

But Conservatives aren't the only party playing kitty-bar-the-door, McLaughlin suggested.

He said it is no coincidence the Ontario Liberal government won't outline the details of its carbon pricing until after the federal election, when any blowback from rising gas prices could wash over their federal cousins.

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