New pipeline plan can’t obscure Keystone XL failure: Tim Harper
The politicization of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal threatens damage to Canada-U.S. relations, even before the decision.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has raised the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline with U.S. President Barack Obama at every turn, to apparently little effect, writes Tim Harper.
By: Tim Harper
National Affairs, Published on Thu Aug 01 2013
All of Thursday’s high-fiving and talk of “nation-building” among politicians and the oil industry over a proposed west-east oil pipeline cannot obscure what has so far been an abject failure on another crucial energy proposal.
When the cheering over Energy East subsides, it will face its own opposition from environmentalists and, perhaps, Quebec.
But before that, federal and provincial politicians and TransCanada still have the debacle which is the Keystone XL proposal.
They all share the blame for this stalled project, but they are also sharing it with politicians south of the border, starting at the White House.
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Protesters opposed to Keystone XL hold sections of mock pipeline in California earlier this year. The new Energy East pipeline proposal will surely face its own opposition, writes Tim Harper. zoom
The ongoing Keystone morass has become so politicized that questions of whether Barack Obama’s rejection would damage Canada-U.S. relations have been supplanted by questions of how much damage has already been done during a protracted decision-making process which remains unresolved.
The latest week in pipeline politics began when Obama lowballed the number of jobs that would be created by Keystone, telling the New York Times with “a chuckle” that following completion of the pipeline a mere 50 to 100 jobs might be created.
He also said Canada “could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release” at the tarsands.
Regardless of the merit of that comment — and polls show most Canadians would agree with him — it is extremely rare for the leader of one country to publicly call out an ally and neighbour on its domestic policy, whether or not it has cross-border implications.
Irritation in Canada was understandable, forcing our envoy in Washington and Harper’s office to push back on both jobs and climate change policy.
Obama was reiterating what his former U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, had been saying, that the Harper government had to provide Washington with more environmental cover for pipeline approval.
But Obama has no one to deliver the message in Ottawa.
In what has to be considered another bilateral irritant, he has not replaced Jacobson and no one is on the horizon, leaving a huge vacancy in the capital of America’s largest trading partner.
In the wake of Obama’s statement, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, may have overstepped in characterizing the oil export question as a choice between trains or pipelines.
Such a statement sounded like a challenge to the Obama administration, paid lip service to the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que., and ignored the fact that as the volume of oil carried by rail increases, so will the opposition to such traffic.
Perhaps we’ve merely seen an irritated president “trash-talking” his Republican tormenters who have been throwing Keystone inaction in his face for ages.
Perhaps he was thinking only domestic politics, not Canadian sensibilities.
But he didn’t misspeak. He has twice delivered a similar message this week, and his spokesperson has not softened the president’s comments.
If he is trying to gain leverage with Ottawa for more action on climate change, Republicans say, he is now adding new conditions to the project, reaching beyond American jurisdiction and fundamentally changing the criteria on which such decisions are based. Now they are accusing him of damaging Canada-U.S. relations.
“What was once a standard, apolitical process for approving pipelines with an allied friend and neighbour in Canada, a country with which we have a decades-long free trade agreement, has now become an embarrassment,” a trio of Congressional Republicans from the energy and commerce committee wrote to Obama.
There has been a never-ending parade of Canadian and provincial politicians making the case for Keystone in Washington.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has raised the issue with Obama at every turn, but Obama is either not taking his brief on the issue or deliberately ignoring it.
Alberta shunned advice to reach out to key states to build allies and has clearly been unable to convince the White House it is mindful of the need to develop the tarsands in an environmentally sustainable manner.
Ottawa, from Harper to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, has characterized Keystone as such a logical policy choice that it could not be stopped. TransCanada blustered ahead as if it was dealing with a fait accompli.
Obama punted Keystone once for political purposes and a decision expected in 2013 could now bleed into the next year.
Approval could still be coming, but a man who will not again face the electorate may be looking for a legacy issue and rejection of Keystone could be part of a larger climate change legacy.
Canadian politicians may have unwittingly helped hand it to him.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.