The Keystone XL Pipeline: Trapped in Silly Season

TCPL’s Keystone XL pipeline may not be dead, but it is mortally wounded thanks to President Obama’s refusal to grant a presidential permit allowing XL to proceed.  Many blame Alberta’s Conservative government for not doing enough to ensure that Keystone landed right side up at the end of the arduous 3 year approval process.  The PCs have failed Albertans in many ways—but this isn’t one of them.

Granted, the PCs should have enacted tougher environmental laws years ago instead of cosying up to industry.  That may have given some comfort to the environmentalists (as well as the feds who elbowed their way into Alberta’s environmental process).  However that’s about as far as we can go to blame the PCs for the failure of Keystone.

If you want to see who’s really responsible for Keystone going pear-shaped look no further than the corporations developing the oilsands, TCPL, and the quagmire created by American politics in an election year. The latter is particularly instructive given that Albertans are also entering the silly season.

Let’s start with the corporations.  It’s their responsibility, not the government’s, to ensure that the public is fully informed of the benefits and the risks of the oilsands and, more importantly, understand that the benefits outweigh the risks.  Public tax dollars are earmarked for projects in the public interest (think healthcare) and should not be spent on public relations efforts to bolster the private interests of a corporation’s shareholders.  These corporations have their own well-paid PR and government relations departments, they failed to use them effectively.

Turning to TCPL…What were they thinking?  It’s one thing to face down ranchers in a right-of-way dispute which ends in expropriation.  It’s quite another to plunk a ruler on a map, draw a straight line through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska and declare that that’s the pipeline route come hell or high water—especially when the route runs straight as an arrow through the Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer.

The environmentalists were enraged and joined forces with the disenfranchised ranchers to cry halt.  TCPL responded with charts and graphs.  It acknowledged the “unique challenges” of the Sandhills and committed to bringing in experts.*  It reassured the protesters that the odds of a leak in the Ogallala aquifer were small and the impact of a leak would be minimal in the grand scheme of things.

Maybe true, but dream on.  Charts and graphs never trump emotion.  The environmentalists drew in big name supporters but still TCPL refused to re-route the pipeline.  Instead it placed its future in the hands of the politicians…in an election year.  Desperate men do desperate things, but really…What were they thinking? 

The first crack in that game plan appeared when Obama delayed his decision on the presidential certificate until after the Nov 2012 election.  Surprise surprise.  The Republicans saw their opportunity and took it.  They cleverly tacked a rider to a tax reduction bill (only in the US…!) which imposed an arbitrary 60 day deadline within which Obama had to decide whether Keystone was in the national interest or not.

Obama had two choices: (1) go with the environmentalists and be painted as an anti-business tree hugger or (2) go with industry and lose the support of the powerful Natural Resources Defence Council and other activists forever.  Either way the Republicans win.

What do you do when you have to choose between 2 doors:  behind one is the lady and behind the other is the lion, except the lady isn’t a lady she’s another lion.  Obama was hooped.  On Jan 19th, a full month ahead of the deadline, he did exactly what the Republicans thought he’d do—he chose the environmentalists.

The Republicans are now frothing with well-staged indignation.  They’re working on 3 bills to “fight for the pipeline”.  They’ve “invited” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to testify about Keystone at the next House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.  They’re abuzz with energy devoted to saving the pipeline that they themselves put in jeopardy.

The Keystone experience is instructive as Albertans go into the next election.  The controversy over Keystone was not caused by activists vs industry, or even politicians vs industry, but rather politicians vs politicians.  And when politicians are pitted against politicians in “silly season” they will throw everyone—the public, industry, their mothers—under the bus if that’s what it takes to be re-elected.

To paraphrase Kenneth Greene, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, every single word a politician says in silly season should be viewed as a campaign tactic.** Let’s keep a keen eye out for who’s about to be thrown under the bus.    

*TCPL Report, Pipeline Construction in Sandhills Native Ranchlands, TCPL website

**Calgary Herald, Jan 20, 2012, D7

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13 Responses to The Keystone XL Pipeline: Trapped in Silly Season

  1. Rose Marie MacKenzie-Kirkwood says:

    I miss the old days when your word and a handshake sealed the deal. Politics appears to have alot in common with PMS; you have to watch what you say, when you say it and to who you say it to because it could all turn around at any point in time depending on which way the wind blows. When it comes to politics and politicians, I have yet to find one solid productive word that is said “for the people, for the betterment of the people.”

    In the world of computers, a tech tries to diagnose the problem and find the most feasible, financially practical solution to the problem. There are standard practices that are followed that will resolve most “user indused’ problems but when all else fails sometimes the only solution is to wipe the hard drive and start again. Not saying we should throw them all out, but I tell you some days it does appear to be a good idea.

    So, if we can’t throw them all out, let us start again. Get out a pad of paper, draw a line down the middle and at the top of one side write “pros” and on the other write “cons” and start listing. Yes, there will have to be give and take but is the only way that countries can pool their resources for the better.

    Just my two cents worth.

    • I love the PMS analogy! Yes this unpredictable “yes/no, start/stop” way of governing is not helpful to anyone; not industry and certainly not the public. But that’s what happens when a political party has no real strategy other than “what does it take to get re-elected”. As a very smart lady (my mother) recently said…is this the quality of people that are running for president nowadays?

      So what do we do about it? We continue to seek out politicians we can trust, get behind them and work, work, work to make sure they get into power.

      Thanks for your comments Rose Marie, I always enjoy receiving your two cents!

  2. Susan:
    Very interesting post. Transcanada was very arrogant going in to this, and has lost a lot of credibility by magically finding a new route days after the old one was killed. They have cried “wolf” too often. That said, Obama really blew it too – he didnt honor due process, in my view was cowardly in his approach. Everyone involved in this is covered in shame, including the producers, the governments and TCPL. They have played high stakes politics with the energy security of the US and the future of the oil sands. A pox on all their houses! (gosh, that sounds harsh, but I cant help it!)

    • Rose Marie MacKenzie-Kirkwood says:

      It almost seems like everyone bought their B game with them, knowing full well the A game would not be approved which doesn’t give you a lot of confidence in either plan. I’m with you Sheila, a pox on all their houses!

    • Sheila, I agree with everything you’ve said, including the pox on their houses! I recall TCPL saying that the project would die if they were forced to re-route the pipe, but the real issue appears to have been the additional cost and delay in getting final approval. Turns out that for an addition $200 to $470 million for an additional 100 kilometres of pipe TCPL can avoid the environmentally sensitive Sandhills and Ogallala aquifer. Weigh that against a capital cost of $7 billion (paid for by the shippers) and a delay of who knows how long…and it looks like a no brainer. Like I said what were they thinking?

  3. roy wright says:

    I am still struggling with the notion of responsibility and the Alberta government. While I agree with you (and your commentators) that TCPL was not wise and quite likely arrogant in its approach, I think our government should be blessed with the same pox as well. The present Alberta government appears to have forgotten that its primary purpose is not to be in bed with the private market but to provide and ensure public good is being served. It has coddled companies with very low corporate tax rates, very weak environmental regulation and other corporate welfare schemes which funnel money back into the industry–all of which suggests the normal arms length relationship is indeed not at arms length. The combination of silly seasons in the USA and in Alberta, coupled with industry missteps might well result in the perfect storm, something none of us want. I suspect Albertans want to see resource extraction to take place at a reasonable pace, and in a reasonable fashion, whereby we take pride in managing the “commons” of our province. I do not want to be thought of as the cheapest place to do business, or the place to carry out slash and burn forms of extraction, but as a place that takes care of its environment and its people. That means a rebalance, and I hope the perfect storm does not take that ability away from us.

    • Roy, your points are valid. I may have understated the PCs culpability in this process. Kevin Taft, Liberal MLA for Edmonton-Riverview, has written a book called Follow the Money which addresses the question of who benefits from Alberta’s wealth. He points out that Alberta could increase corporate taxes by $11 billion and still be the province with the lowest corporate taxes. I like the idea of rebalancing the public and private interest. We’re on the cusp of an election. This is the time for all Albertans, not just those in the PC camp, to make their voices heard.

  4. Carlos Beca says:

    I personally am not sorry that this pipeline is mortally wounded. I cannot understand the government support behind this project. It will export high quality jobs to the US, it costs the absurd 7 billion dollars (estimate) and takes oil to a market that if anything is declining. The US dependency on oil has to decline if they have any aspirations of a rejuvenated manufacturing industry.

    As far as the environmentalists I just say that if it was not for them and in many cases to their radical attitudes, nothing would have been left in the world. We all know that but for some reason we continue to refuse to side even with those that are what we now call extreme. Just 10 years ago anyone suggesting that homosexuals should have the same rights as everyone else, would have been an extreme nut and stone to death. We are all environmentalists because nothing, absolutely nothing exists or has any chances to exist without a healthy environment. We are animals and just like any other being on this planet cannot survive if we choose to disregard our sacred home. The fact that a federal minister calls those of us that decided that protecting our environment is a worthy cause, extreme is nothing else but idiotic. This coming from a government that borders on the extreme right. We do not need to sell everything we have for peanuts and pollute our own homes.

    There is enough development in this province to provide more than enough to every citizen. The problem is that taxes are so low and royalties a joke and to compensate for that we need to produce more and more for less and less revenue. How does this make sense? According to Mr. Taft, we could take in another 11 billion dollars in revenues and still have the lower tax rates in Canada.

    We should consider developing our oils sands only if that is in our interest and not in the interest of the Chinese or the Americans. They have to worry about their own citizens and their responsibilities and we of ours. This crazy development Steven Harper and Alison Redford are talking about to provide as much oil as possible to the Chinese is to say the least ludicrous. Does any of them know how much water and natural gas it is required to produce that oil? Never mind the air and land pollution. To me makes sense we adjust our standards of living to what we can safely produce rather than just grow and grow without any other consideration other than greed and markets.

    I am 100% with Roy as far as the responsibility and the Alberta government. I was involved with the construction industry when the first oil sands refinery was built and already at that time many people were talking about the pollution and the use of water and gas. What has been done since then? Other than more efficient ways of separating the oil from the sand, not much. Roy says and very well that most Albertans want a reasonable pace and with full respect for our commons. I love this province and I will fight tooth and nail to make sure these corporations and governments which play the game on the same side, will respect our natural environment whether or not they call me whatever they want to call. I have the responsibility to make this province better for future Albertans. Roy is absolutely right to say that this government has totally forgotten they are representing citizens and protecting our interests. Instead they seem to be happy to say that we collected 3.7 billion dollars in royalties in 2011. We sold 1.4 million barrels of oil that year and according to Oil Sands their profits were $21.75 per barrel. let us take $20.00 dollars per barrel. At least $28 billion in profits in this province. According to our premiers this is a very good deal. I agree to disagree. In my opinion they are getting what the Oil companies want to pay because they have our government in their pockets.

  5. Lots of interesting points here. The point of the government’s responsibility to its people is very important (and I admit I may have understated it). This responsibility hits at a number of levels–environmental protection, upgrading in Alberta to create higher value jobs and a future for the next generation, responsible development of resource towns such as Fort McMurray so that they grow into real communities rather than overblown work camps…the list goes on. Some of the opposition parties (the NDP, Liberals and Alberta Party) see the delay of Keystone as an opportunity for thoughtful re-think of the entire process. We can register our approval of this approach by voting for them in the next election. Thanks for your comments, Carlos.

  6. Pingback: Environmentalists and the Keystone Pipeline | | noomizo

  7. Carlos Beca says:

    I agree with you about voting for one of the opposition parties but I have to admit I doubt any of them would change the current state of Alberta affairs. In order to make real changes one has to have guts and I do not see that in any of the current leaders. We do not have much time left. At present the right is bit by bit copying the US in incremental steps because they know that if they come out clearly and say what they have in mind, even the 39% that voted for them will fast decrease to nothing. Mr. Harper is not silly and he has shown that so far by shapeshifting from a Newt Gingrich clone Reform style person into an apparent right wing conservative. He also knows very well how to take advantage of the International spotlight especially with the state of the Canadian Economy which has nothing to do with what he has or has not done so far, but is direct result of Paul Martin’s work in the previous Liberal government. If anything they have already emptied all the surpluses that were left behind. The Alberta PCs or the Wildrose Party will follow the Federal PCs into transforming this province into a jungle economy. This is not new though, if you look into a not too distant past, they are behaving like Marxist fundamentalists in Russia at the beginning of the last century. Their adulation of the Market Religion is pretty much complete. Fortunately for those of us who can still think rather than having to let the market do whatever it does for us, the churches are still under construction.

  8. Pingback: The Keystone XL Pipeline: Trapped in Silly Season | Susan on the Soapbox | Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

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