By David Ljunggren
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada is doing a bad job of protecting the environment, an official watchdog said on Tuesday, suggesting a poor image for the country on green issues could harm Canadian companies seeking to export crude oil and natural gas.
The damning report by Neil Maxwell, interim commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, puts more pressure on the Conservative government, which is already under fire for what critics say is a poor environmental record.
"Government has not met key commitments, deadlines and obligations to protect Canada's wildlife and natural spaces," Maxwell told a news conference.
The report will undoubtedly boost the spirits of green activists in the United States who want President Barack Obama to block TransCanada Corp's proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude from the Alberta oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Environmentalists oppose development of the Alberta tar sands on the grounds that extracting oil from the clay-like bitumen there is very energy-intensive and greenhouse gas emissions are high.
Maxwell referred to "the wide and persistent gap between what the government commits to do and what it is achieving" and said the federal environment ministry has missed key deadlines to protect migratory birds, failed to protect wildlife habitat and has done nowhere near enough to protect species at risk.
Parks Canada, which runs Canada's national parks, is struggling to try to protect ecosystems, he added.
"The approval processes currently under way for large oil and gas pipelines in North America have shown that widespread acceptance of resource development depends, in part, on due consideration for protecting nature," Maxwell said.
"Our trading partners see Canada as a steward of globally significant resources. Canada's success as a trading nation depends on continued leadership in meeting international expectations for environmental protection," he said.
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq did not directly respond to Maxwell's concerns in a statement issued after the report.
"Canada continues to strengthen its environmental protection and conservation, leading to healthy ecosystems that will ultimately benefit the economy and support the health of Canadians," she said, but offered no details.
Environmentalists said the report underlines Canada's failure to meet international commitments to protect biodiversity, and called for more federal action.
"Our ecosystems are in decline and the number of species at risk is increasing each year. Human pressures on Canada's ecosystems from resource development are at an all-time high," said Alison Woodley, spokeswoman for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
OIL SANDS EMISSIONS
The governing Conservatives, whose political heartland is in Alberta, the center of the energy industry, have worked hard to make it easier for companies to extract and export oil and gas. The 2012 federal budget reduced the amount of time it takes to complete environmental assessments of major energy and industrial projects.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other senior officials have regularly pressed Washington to approve Keystone XL. The U.S. State Department is expected to soon finalize an environmental assessment that will focus on the pipeline's climate impact and a final decision on Keystone XL is expected sometime next year.
In a separate report, energy research group IHS Cera said that when upstream fuel consumed in crude production and processing is taken into account, greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands crude refined in the United States are 12 percent higher than the average crude consumed in the country.
IHS Senior Director Jackie Forrest said oil sands emissions are 9 percent higher than the average U.S. crude when those upstream emissions are stripped out, unchanged from the group's estimate last year.
"At this level, oil sands are on par with other sources of U.S. crude, including crudes from Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq and heavy oil production in the U.S," IHS said in a statement.
Oil sands greenhouse gas emissions have come under close scrutiny since Obama said Keystone XL should not be approved if it raises emissions.
Canada is also involved in a protracted political struggle with the European Union, which is contemplating whether to label oil sands crude as particularly dirty. The government fears this could set a damaging precedent.
(Additional reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary; Editing by Peter Galloway)