Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff says that protecting Alberta's controversial oilsands is a national unity issue.

All of Canada benefits from oilsands development, Ignatieff told a Chamber of Commerce lunch in Edmonton Friday.

"The oilsands are an integral part of the future of Canada," he said. "No other country in the word would toss away this advantage."

But he did warn that future development needs to be greener.

"We're operating this thing like it was the Klondike, and it's not the Klondike. We're going to be there for a century or more," Ignatieff said.

"We need to be able to stand up for the oilsands and ask the oil industry to do better. These communities need to become environmentally sustainable, but they also need to become socially sustainable."

Ignatieff also said that Ottawa should match at least part of the $2 billion that Alberta's government has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands industry.

The oilsands came under fire recently when they were featured in a spread in National Geographic magazine. The article, "The Canadian oil boom: Scraping the bottom" has been called a "baby seal" public-relations disaster for the industry.

But Ignatieff said that he supports hard caps on greenhouse gases, which the industry says will limit production increases.

However, he said that the federal government must negotiate any cap-and-trade system with the oil industry.

"We will be watching in Opposition to make sure (a cap-and-trade system) won't hurt Alberta," he said. "We need to work with the industry, and not against the industry."

The trip west was Ignatieff's second in as many weeks. With an eye on the next election, Ignatieff is trying to distance himself as a leader from his party's historic failings in the region.

"God knows this party has made mistakes out in the Western Canada and I know them," Ignatieff said in Regina several weeks ago.

He also had words for former Liberal leader Stephane Dion's Green Shift plan, which was nearly as unpopular in the west as Pierre Trudeau's national energy program.

"I think you can't win elections if you are adding to the input costs of a farmer . . . or a trucker," Ignatieff said in a news conference in Edmonton Friday. "You got to work with the grain of Canadians and not against them."

"I think we learned a lesson in the last election."

But Ignatieff emphasized the Liberals are not backtracking on the environment agenda.

"Our goal is very simple -- to reduce the amount of energy input into everything we do," he said.

Wih files on The Canadian Press