Canada has fired a diplomatic shot across the bow of the European Union, warning that any move to single out oilsands crude as environmentally unfriendly will be met with retaliation.

Canada's ambassador to the EU, David Plunkett, sent a letter to Connie Hedegaard, the EU commissioner for climate change in December.

That letter was recently obtained through a freedom of information request and cited by Britain's the Guardian newspaper, which has been reporting on the EU plan to change the classification of oilsands crude.

Ottawa opposes any move that would hurt its ability to export oilsands products or market it around the world as a viable fuel option.

"If the final measures single out oilsands crude in a discriminatory, arbitrary or unscientific way, or are otherwise inconsistent with the EU's international trade obligations, I want to state that Canada will explore every avenue at its disposal to defend its interests, including at the World Trade Organization," stated the letter.

Environmental groups have continuously lobbied against Alberta's oilsands, arguing the process to extract the fuel has catastrophic effects on the local environment and the global climate.

On Feb. 23, the EU will vote on a proposal to label crude from the oilsands as causing 22 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil, on average, based on the energy required to extract the bitumen from the ground.

Plunkett's letter was made public a day after a published report by one of the world's top climate scientists concluded that burning coal, not mining oilsands, is the biggest threat to global warming.

Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria professor, and his colleague Neil Swart analyzed how burning all global stocks of coal, oil and natural gas would affect temperatures. In a paper published in the prestigious Nature journal, they found that burning all of the world's coal deposits would increase the global temperature by 15 degrees Celsius.

By contrast, if all the hydrocarbons in the oilsands were mined and consumed, the global temperatures would rise by about 0.36 degrees, according to Weaver and Swart's calculations.

While many are interpreting the study as a defence of Alberta's oilsands, Greenpeace Canada says that's not the case.

Mike Hudema, a campaigner with the environmental organization, told CTV's Power Play Monday that Weaver's study has been "misconstrued."

Hudema said he personally spoke with Weaver, who told him that his study ultimately reinforces the need for Canada -- and the world -- to end its dependence on fossil fuels altogether.

The study does not exonerate the oilsands, Hudema said, and "it doesn't change the reality here in Canada."

"When it comes to emissions, tar sands are the biggest problem," he said.

But Michelle Rempel, the parliamentary secretary for Environment Minister Peter Kent, told Power Play the Conservative government is taking "a balanced approach" between environmental stewardship and protecting its job-rich industry sector.

She said Canada is following environmental regulations and has the right to stand up for its economic interests and protect its international reputation.

NDP MP Olivia Chow called the Conservatives' "threatening" letter about the oilsands to the EU "unacceptable."

"Diplomacy is what's most important, not threats," she told Power Play.

Last October, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver sent a letter with a similar message to European commissioner for energy Gunther Oettinger and Baroness Catherine Ashton, vice president of the commission.

"If unjustified, discriminatory measures to implement the fuel quality directive are put in place, Canada will not hesitate to defend its interests," Oliver wrote in the letter also cited by the Guardian.

The Guardian has also reported on recent closed-door meetings between British and Canadian officials discussion the issue, and British efforts to help protect the reputation of Canada's oilsands.

The U.K. has reportedly proposed an alternative option, which would use a so-called "banded" approach to link carbon emissions levels to different types of fuels. That approach would not single out oilsands crude.

The massive Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which would carry oil from Alberta to Texas, was recently put in jeopardy when U.S. President Barack Obama delayed any decision on the project until after the 2012 election.

Since then Canada has focused on the possibility of a Northern Gateway pipeline, which would instead carry oil from Alberta to the West Coast, making it more accessible to customers in China.