Harper government caught flat footed on US and China’s new climate initiative

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Sometimes the instincts of even the most seasoned politician can be wrong.  When Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall announced last week that Obama would be shooting himself in the foot if he vetoed the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, he displayed the lack of judgement that may come back to haunt him if he ever throws his hat in the ring to replace Stephen Harper as leader of the Federal Conservatives (Don’t laugh.  He’s already the most popular Premier in Canada).

The problem is that while Wall and the Harper government maintain that Keystone XL represents a vital, ecologically sound, job-generating economic link between the two countries, they put themselves squarely on the Republican side of a debate that will most likely be resolved by Congress, should the GOP get their super-majority (67 votes) next January (Tuesday’s close defeat in the Senate was just the beginning).  This would give them the power to override any exercise of Presidential veto to block the project, which is exactly what Obama has threatened to do.  That may be a win for the oil lobby in the U.S. (note: when Wall speaks of his province’s “agent” this is what he means) and Canada, and ultimately may prove to be a boon to the industry in Alberta and Saskatchewan.  However it is potentially a major public relations failure for Canada in the U.S., and maybe even here at home.

You see when the international community overwhelmingly gets behind the two biggest polluters in the world working together to fight climate change with an historic accord that would commit them both to a dramatic reduction in their co2 emissions over the next decade, it’s a tad indelicate, to say the least, for Canadian politicians to be seen as undermining these attempts publicly, for whatever reason.

Last week in China, Obama surprised everyone, including our Ambassador in Washington (Former NDP Manitoba Premier Gary Doer) presumably, with a declaration that his country would reduce its carbon footprint from 26% to 27% by 2025, relative to their 2005 levels.  It speaks to lack of trust between the President and our Prime Minister, that we didn’t receive any kind of warning from our special friends in D.C. that they would be doing this.  The end result is that overnight, our own commitment (which was based on the old American targets) made in 2006 by the Harper government which targets a 17% curb by 2020, compared to 2005 levels (quite impossible to meet given the expected growth in the tar sands extraction) was eclipsed.  The moral of the story: don’t base your environmental policy on what other governments are doing, especially when the latter doesn’t take your intention to help seriously enough to involve you in their consultations.

Now the Harper government is faced with a dilemma: they can either change course, adopting the Obama targets, admitting that their original policy on emissions was not strong enough, or do nothing and be exposed as the climate-change phonies, that everyone already suspects.

Pipeline politics are rapidly becoming a flashpoint along the longest “undefended border in the world.”  With President Obama making the claim that the number of jobs for Americans created by the project are negligible, and somewhat less credibly, that the oil imported by Keystone XL won’t even stay in the U.S., being mostly destined for the export market.   Worst of all for TransCanada, the U.S. market is increasingly flooded with cheap energy (shale natural gas & oil) as that country’s energy independence seems to be becoming a reality.  In 2013 the U.S. imported just 36% of its oil from abroad, down from a high of 60% in 2006.  This surge in output represents a 25 year high.

Not to mention that if oil doesn’t enter U.S. refineries via the Keytsone XL pipeline, it will come by other means (railroads, pipelines, river barges, etc.).  In fact, Keystone is just one component in a vast network of already functioning cross-border pipelines that carry black tar bitumen from Canada’s north to the U.S.

Of course, this means less pressure on Obama to cooperate with Canadian governments and more flexibility in dealing with his new commitment to cutting his country’s greenhouse gas sources, even if public opinion in the U.S. generally seems to favour the Keystone XL project, not to mention all those corporately owned Republican and Democrat politicians going to bat for TransCanada in Congress.

The last thing POTUS (President of the United States) needs is for the Canadian government and its lobbyists to be breathing down his neck publicly.  A strategy that hasn’t pushed him any closer towards approving the project for over 6 years, and is even less likely to cause him to budge on the issue today.

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Other articles by David DesBaillets
Are Canadian unions divorcing the NDP?
Harper misses the point on calls for public inquiry into missing aboriginal women
Has the Harper government declared war on Canadian charities

Follow David DesBaillets on twitter: @DDesBaillets

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