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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Oil sands producers must do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. ambassador to Canada said on Monday, as the two countries move to harmonize rules on carbon dioxide cuts.
Canada's oil sands, the largest crude reserve outside the Middle East, offer secure energy supplies for the United States. But David Jacobson, appointed as President Barack Obama's envoy to Canada in 2009, said the companies exploiting the resource must take further steps to reduce their environmental impact.
"I understand (the oil sands) importance to your country and to mine," Jacobson said in speech to the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region Summit in Calgary.
"I'm aware of the significant steps that have been taken by the industry to the effects of the oil sands operations on the land, the water and the air, but I do not think I'm alone in saying that more needs to be done," he said.
Canada is the largest supplier of oil to the United States, responsible for about 20 percent of U.S. imports, and the bulk of that oil comes from the oil sands.
However the large-scale projects that exploit the oil sands of northern Alberta are a rising source of carbon dioxide, while toxic waste from mining projects, held in vast tailings ponds, is a threat to birds and other wildlife.
Those environmental hazards have spurred some U.S. legislators, including Henry Waxman, the influential chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to oppose a new pipeline planned to carry Canadian crude to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
A number of environmental groups are also bitterly opposed to oil sands production. One green group put up billboards in U.S. cities last week urging Americans not to travel to Alberta, though the ambassador, a Chicago native, said the campaign was a too-simple response to a complicated issue.
"The notion of 'don't go to Alberta because it has oil sands' makes just about as much sense as 'don't go visit Chicago because Illinois has coal'," Jacobson said. "This is a complicated issue and I'm not sure that a billboard ... is the way to go."
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said he agreed with Jacobson on the need to improve the province's environmental performance, and said the industry is doing that. He pointed to an initiative by Suncor Energy Inc to employ new techniques and spend as much as C$1 billion ($950 million) to reduce liquid tailings as an example.
"We will be developing coal, we will be developing oil sands, we will be developing conventional oil and gas in ways that are environmentally sustainable, with less environmental footprint," Stelmach told reporters after speaking to the summit.
"We're certainly looking forward to the changes in technology on the tailings ponds."
The toxic tailings became the focus of public anger two years ago when hundreds of ducks died after landing on a pond owned by Syncrude Canada Ltd.
Jacobson also said he backed plans for Canada and the United States to align their greenhouse gas emission rules, a key part of the Canadian government's environmental policy.
"We can move forward together to put a price on carbon, to establish regulations that are coordinated, effective and are meaningful," he said. "That's the best way to make sure that out two countries end up with a regime that is consistent on both sides of the border."
The Pacific NorthWest Economic Region Summit is an annual meeting of legislators and businesses from the U.S. Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Western Canada.
Editing by Rob Wilson