CALGARY, Alberta – The Canadian government will keep supporting development of Alberta's oil sands while it follows the U.S. lead on setting targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the country's environment minister said on Monday.

The oil sands, a frequent target of criticism among environmental groups, must be developed responsibly, but at the same time governments need to boost efforts to trumpet work being done to clean up operations, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said.

"What is at issue on the international stage is our reputation as a country," Prentice told a University of Calgary School of Public Policy audience. "Accordingly, we need to up our game, in terms of both environmental vigilance and in terms of our communication efforts."

Prentice made the comments after trimming emission targets and pledging to harmonize with the United States, fueling new scorn from green groups already critical of Canada's role in international climate change talks in Copenhagen in December.

In a letter sent to the United Nations on Saturday, Canada committed to a 17 percent cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. This is identical to the U.S. target but less than the 20 percent cut from 2006 levels that Ottawa previously promised.

Environmental groups say Canada -- one of the largest per capita emitters of greenhouses gases among developed nations -- has a lamentable record and needs to do much more.

But Prentice said there is no point adopting tougher goals than the United States, Canada's largest trading partner.

Alberta's oil sands are the largest source of oil outside the Middle East, and most of the 1.2 million barrels a day of oil sands-derived crude gets shipped to the United States.

The processes for producing the oil are more carbon intensive than those used for producing conventional oil and gas.

Prentice rejected the notion that Ottawa is affording the oil sands more protection from environmental regulation than other sectors, but he touted the unique opportunity for expansion.

"The oil sands is an important strategic resource," he told reporters.

"No other industrial democracy in the world has an asset that is similar to that and there certainly is no asset similar to that in the United States."

Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, questioned why Ottawa can't set its own agenda for cutting greenhouse gases, when some Canadian provinces have already set up their own initiatives to deal with carbon cuts. British Columbia, for example, has instituted a carbon tax.

"We've realized that our international reputation in Canada really depends on our environmental performance and that depends on how we're going to deal with the land, air and climate impacts of the oil sands," Raynolds said.

Meanwhile, Graham Saul of Climate Action Network Canada, said he believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper has no intention of meeting the new less stringent target.

"They have announced a declaration of dependence on the United States and they are openly admitting that they are going to do as little as possible until other countries force them to take action. It is a disgrace," he said in a statement.

Canada's Conservative government walked away from the Kyoto climate change pact, saying it could harm the economy.

Under the original Kyoto accord, signed by the previous Liberal government, Ottawa committed to cutting emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. Output of greenhouse gases is now around 35 percent higher than 1990 levels.