“If you were a betting man (or woman) what odds would you place on President Obama approving the Keystone XL pipeline before the end of his term and why?”
Ms Soapbox posed the question to a panel* discussing the future of Alberta’s energy industry. The panelists, bless their hearts, didn’t leave the stage en masse…partly because Ms Soapbox was the moderator and had control of the agenda.
Instead this group of economists, politicians, academics and businessmen pegged the odds between 25% to 80%; with a higher chance of approval based on Mr Obama holding off on a decision until the mid-term elections were safely out of the way.
Given our understanding of the USA’s desperate need for energy security and job creation projects how did Keystone XL turn into a political football?
Small decisions; huge impacts
The fate of Keystone XL is uncertain because of decisions taken by the Harper government and TCPL—decisions that created tremendous public resistance. Like a Chinese finger trap, the harder Harper and TCPL fought to overcome this resistance, the tighter the trap became. Let’s review the timeline:
Sept 2008 – TCPL applies for a presidential permit to build a pipeline to carry bitumen across the Canada/US border for delivery to refineries on US Gulf Coast.
May 2011 – Harper wins a majority government. Recognizing Canada’s potential to become an energy super power he begins an aggressive campaign to get Keystone XL approved. His strategy is based on his belief that the USA’s need for energy security and job creation trumps environmental concerns. Mistake #1.
Aug 2011 – Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman is deluged by complaints from farmers, ranchers and environmentalists who want the pipeline rerouted to avoid the Ogallala aquifer in the Sandhills region. The Ogallala supplies drinking water for 2 million people in eight states and irrigates almost half of Nebraska.** Governor Heineman supports their position and asks Obama to refuse the permit.
Oct 2011 – TCPL meets with four Nebraska senators but refuses to budge because it is “impossible” to reroute the pipeline to avoid the aquifer at this late date. Mistake #2.
Nov 1 2011– Nebraska grants itself the power to block the pipeline.
Nov 5, 2011 – TCPL decides it’s not impossible to reroute Keystone after all (surprise) and agrees to develop an alternate route. Nebraska Governor Heineman is happy but the reroute will require further environmental review.
Nov 10, 2011 – Obama advises Harper that his decision is delayed due to the situation in Nebraska, a pro-pipeline state run by a pro-pipeline governor.
Nov 2011 – Harper says he won’t take “no for an answer.” He redoubles his lobbying efforts and unleashes a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to bring Obama to his senses.
Dec 2011 – Harper pulls Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol.
Jan 2012– Obama advises Harper that the Republicans attached a rider to a tax bill demanding a decision on Keystone within 60 days. Since 60 days isn’t enough time to conduct proper assessment of TCPL’s alternative route through Nebraska Obama has no alternative but to turn it down.
Jan 2012 – TCPL reapplies for a permit and receives a positive environmental review from the State Department, but by now Nebraska’s authority to approve the revised route is before the courts.
Nov 2012 – Obama is re-elected.
Apr 2014 – Obama advises Harper that his decision will be delayed pending the outcome of the Nebraska court case which is (coincidently) not expected to be handed down until after the Nov 2014 mid-term elections. Keystone is in limbo.
The Harper government dismisses Obama’s inaction as “purely political” stalling. Joe Oliver, Finance Minister, blames the delay on well funded environmentalists who have the President’s ear.
TCPL executives blame BP and Enbridge, arguing that the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and Enbridge’s spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan mobilized well funded environmentalists who made Keystone XL the whipping boy in an anti-oilsands, anti-fossil fuels campaign.
Get real. Public opposition to pipelines (and the bitumen they carry) comes from all quarters, not just “well funded environmental groups”. In BC entire towns voted against Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline. The Dogwood Initiative, an environmental group, is considering triggering a province wide referendum, à la the HST referendum, to decide whether Northern Gateway should proceed, despite the fact that it’s been blessed by the regulator.
President Obama’s refusal to be pressured into approving Keystone XL demonstrates that social values (including the protection of the environment) must be balanced with the economic benefits created by pipeline approvals.
Prime Minister Harper needs to move ahead with his promise to enact rigorous environmental regulations. Industry needs to do more than give lip service to the consultation process if it hopes to avoid the embarrassing predicament TCPL created for itself when it agreed to reroute Keystone XL a mere four days after it said a reroute was “impossible”.
All pipelines are political footballs. The best way through the political minefield is to adopt the advice of the US ambassador to Canada, Bruce Heyman, who said “Today you can be pro-economy and pro-energy and considerate of the environment”.***
You can indeed…but first you need to develop a little humility and learn from your mistakes. Over to you Mr Harper.
*David Daly, Peter Linder and Dr Jennifer Winter, MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans, MP Geoff Regan and Dr Marlo Raynolds participated in a lively energy forum presented by the Calgary Centre Federal Liberals
**McClatchy DC Online Feb 13, 2011
***Calgary Herald, Apr 9, 2014, D1