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According to the New York Times, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be releasing plans to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from newly built coal power plants, with regulations for existing plants to follow by 2015. This is a direct response to President Obama’s climate change speech in June 2013, where he reaffirmed the US commitment to reduce GHG emissions 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. Implementing new measures via the EPA will allow Obama to circumvent Congress, which has repeatedly failed to implement climate change legislation. Using the Clean Air Act to enforce regulations is a huge and risky step for the EPA, which will likely have to defend the new rules against legal challenges. 

Canada passed new legislation on coal emissions in 2012. Former Minister of the Environment Peter Kent, likely to be remembered by most as the worst environment minister in Canadian history, announced the new regulations last August. Critics immediately called them “grossly inadequate.” The Pembina Institute has analysed US and Canadian coal policies here and it’s clear that Canada’s efforts are generally the weaker of the two countries. For example, Canadian regulations for newly constructed coal generation won’t come into effect until 2015, and there are no requirements for plants that came online before 2015. Those plants can continue operating for another 50 years without reducing emissions. Efforts to lobby the government by the coal industry were effective: the draft regulations, which had been initially more demanding, were relaxed.

The US plans are far more ambitious. New coal generating stations will only be allowed 1,400 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. The most efficient plants currently available emit 1,600 pounds of CO2 on average, so this will require investment in new technologies for CO2 scrubbers and GHG sequestration. Under the Harper government Canada has followed a policy of matching US climate regulations but, as evidenced on the coal issue, Canada is falling behind.

Canada’s increase in emissions relative to the US is due to rapid oil sands development, and this is at the heart of the Keystone XL pipeline issue. Approval of Keystone XL and regulations for coal have become intertwined. Canadian politicians, such as Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, had previously criticized Obama’s approach to Keystone as US coal plants were allowed to continue polluting. However, the new regulations have effectively killed that argument.

President Obama has made US approval of Keystone conditional on Canada stepping up its climate change mitigation efforts. During the same June speech, Mr. Obama said he would approve Keystone “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution… the net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”

At the September G20 talks in St. Petersburg, Russia, Prime Minister Harper yielded, proposing joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector in order to gain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Minister Oliver travelled to the US last week to meet with the US Energy Secretary to push Keystone and follow up on the Prime Minister’s proposal. As of this writing the US has yet to respond.

Meanwhile, on September 12th the US Congress attempted to debate the proposed Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, the first energy legislation in six years. The talks were quickly stalled by ridiculous amendments by Republicans. One such amendment called for the immediate approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, another one to block the EPA from issuing carbon emission rules for power plants, and another to stop the government from considering the social cost of GHG emissions. Now with the US government shutdown, 90 per cent of the EPA’s employees are suspended and any action is on hold until the situation is resolved.

A Presidential decision on Keystone may not happen until 2014. This sets up an interesting scenario for both Mr. Obama and Mr. Harper. The Democrats are facing fierce opposition in a bitterly divided US, but Obama still has three more years to craft policy. Should the courts uphold the EPA’s powers he will be able to continue efforts to regulate emitters and enforce GHG emission reductions. On the other hand the Conservative government is facing re-election in 2015, and after a decade of Harper there may be calls for his replacement should Keystone and his other pipeline projects fail. For embittered environmentalists, having survived the Harper government’s assault, the prospect of a Liberal or New Democrat government working with President Obama to tackle climate change is tantalizing. 

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. Dan has previously published in Municipal World and Environmental Science and Engineering. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and has a Bachelors' degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. 

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