Tar sands. Tar sands: Getting cleaner all the time. Promise.Photo: NWFblogsCross-posted from Climate Progress.

Canada was once seen as a progressive leader on environmental issues. Today, the country is becoming an international pariah when it comes to climate change — facing fierce criticism from environmental groups and world leaders over its decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol and push dirty tar sands around the world.

It’s not just verbal criticism. The Europeans are currently considering a law that would label the carbon content of tar-sands crude in the E.U. as 22 percent higher than conventional crude. That would discourage refiners, who have to meet 20 percent carbon reduction requirements by 2020, from importing the fuel.

And back in the U.S., the fierce opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline rages on, spurring a strong movement within the country against the resource.

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Canadian officials are doing their best damage control, claiming that the environmental footprint of digging up tar sands is getting smaller. According to the Postmedia Network, Canada’s Environment Minister Peter Kent claimed at the Durban climate talks that tar sands are “a responsibly and sustainably developed resource, of which we are proud.”

But internal government briefing documents released earlier this month and reported on by Postmedia show a different kind of messaging behind the scenes. In a background memo, sent to Canada’s Deputy Environment Minister Paul Boothe, officials admitted the lack of “credible information on [tar sands’] environmental performance.”

“Environment Canada also advised that the absence of scientific evidence supporting their claims was affecting the industry’s ability to raise capital from and sell into (the) foreign market,” reads the memo.

PostMedia obtained the documents through a freedom of information request:

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They also noted that the regulatory shortcomings have left the industry ill-prepared to defend itself from foreign environmental policies, such as proposed climate legislation in Europe to reduce pollution from transportation fuels, as well as criticism on the international stage at events such as the global warming summit in this coastal resort town.

“National and international concern over the environmental footprint of oil sands production represents a growing threat to the economic future of the industry,” said the briefing material, sent on June 4 by Assistant Deputy Minister Michael Keenan and released to Postmedia News on Thursday evening through access to information legislation. “Governments need to provide assurance that oil sands production is environmentally responsible in order to secure the industry’s social license to operate.”

The briefing also states that Canadian officials are “committed to managing the environment in the oil sands based on science, not politics or PR.”

Earlier this summer, however, Wikileaks released a 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. State Department to the Canadian government on how to improve “oil sands messaging” and increase “visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories.”

With the dust-up in the U.S. over the Keystone XL pipeline, the threat over imports from the Europeans, and the overwhelming negative reaction from groups concerned about climate change, the last year has brought anything but positive news stories for the Canadians.

Perhaps that’s why Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now focusing his attention on getting the product into China.