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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada will head into U.N. climate talks in Cancun next week with a part-time environment minister, little chance of meeting its own emissions targets and under broad attack for the development of its oil sands.
But the likely death of U.S. plans for a cap and trade system on carbon emissions after Republican gains in the House of Representatives may take pressure off Canada, which is both the largest supplier of energy to the United States and one of the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita.
"I have no idea what they're going to say in Cancun," said John Bennett, executive director of Sierra Club Canada.
"They'll probably be sitting quiet, waiting to hear what the Americans say but probably being very happy (about) what happened in the States because they had no intention of ever meeting the targets that they said they were going to."
Arguing that unilateral action on curbing greenhouse gas emissions would hurt its competitive position, Canada says it will only act in tandem with Washington on issues like cap and trade.
The country regularly wins "Fossil of the day" awards from green groups at international meetings.
Canadian Environment Minister John Baird -- who also holds another senior government job -- has said nothing about his ambitions for the Cancun meeting, which will try to make progress on sealing a legally binding global deal to cut emissions.
Baird's office did not respond to a request for an interview about Canada's goals at the summit.
The Conservatives walked away from the Kyoto climate change protocol after taking power in 2006 and subsequently adopted a much more modest target for emissions cuts.
Experts say there is no chance Canada can meet even that lower goal if the oil sands -- located in the Conservatives' western heartland of Alberta -- continue expanding.
Studies estimate that extracting a barrel of oil from the sands emits between 5 to 15 percent more greenhouse gases than obtaining oil from other sources.
Baird dismisses calls for oil sands development to be curbed, saying it would cost jobs.
"The stupidest thing you can do is to run against an industry that is providing employment for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, not just in Alberta but right across the country," he told legislators on Monday.
That's also the line from the opposition Liberal Party, which needs electoral gains in Western Canada to stand a chance of winning power.
Implicit Liberal backing for the oil sands means the Conservatives can ignore more vocal minor parties such as the left-leaning New Democrats, who were outraged when the upper house this month rejected a bill that would have obliged Ottawa to make deep cuts in emissions.
Green groups released a report on Monday accusing Ottawa of mounting a diplomatic campaign to persuade the United States and the European Union to drop their opposition to the oil sands.
"This government is playing a reckless and destructive role at an international level," said Graham Saul of Climate Action Network Canada.
Baird said last week that the government would "continue to take credible action" to support a clean environment and mentioned initiatives to clamp down on emissions from cars, trucks and coal-powered generating stations.
These moves have no chance of cutting emissions by the promised 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 as long as oil sands development continues, Bennett said.
"Canada is a petro-government. It will do everything it needs to do to expand the export of oil," he told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last month her department was inclined to approve a proposed $7 billion pipeline to carry oil sands crude to U.S. refineries, in part to lessen dependence on Venezuela and the Middle East.
That reflects the reality that the United States is not going to pressure Canada seriously on the environment.
"Canada seems to ... believe that if we wait long enough the problem will either go away or the pressure to deal with it will go away," said Liberal legislator Gerard Kennedy.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway