Analysis

Keystone XL: The gap between no and 'inevitable'

Barack Obama's rejection of Keystone XL is considered a fait accompli. And yet Stephen Harper still sees its construction as "inevitable." Doesn't someone have to be wrong?

Keystone XL is no longer just a pipeline: it's a symbol

U.S. President Barack Obama hiking to the Exit Glacier in Seward, Alaska, last month. He used the occasion to make an urgent call to action on the issue of climate change. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Right now, the smart money is betting that U.S. President Barack Obama will reject the Keystone XL pipeline in the six weeks between the end of Canada's federal election and the start of the upcoming climate change summit in Paris.

By all indications, Obama, who was quoted recently as saying "I'm dragging the world behind me to Paris," is hyper-focused on the importance of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. If he wants to make a statement, the thinking goes, then what better card to play than Keystone XL, the defining symbol of the climate change divide in his country. Out of courtesy, an announcement will wait until after Canada's election, but after that it's fair game.

And yet, as with two ships passing on a moonless night, there's Stephen Harper in the most recent leader's debate maintaining that Keystone's construction is "inevitable."

No doubt the pipeline's backers nodded vigorously when he said the project makes too much economic and environmental sense to stay on the drawing board. Surely critics were equally inclined to dismiss his arguments as empty talking points made in the froth of an election debate. To do so, though, may be shortsighted.

In the context of Obama's expected denial of the Keystone application, Harper's unflinching use of the word "inevitable" seems telling of a larger disconnect that distinguishes not only the prime minister from the president, but also industry from environmentalists and climate doves from climate hawks.

Symbolism matters

By now, the pro-Keystone arguments — whether it's the economics of the $8-billion project, security of supply for the United States or the environmental benefits of moving oil by pipeline versus rail — have been made.

At this juncture, though, any debate about the project's merits or drawbacks is missing the point.

Keystone is no longer a pipeline: it's a symbol.

"We've basically been arguing about global policy through the lens of a 36-inch steel pipe now for several years," Jason Grumet, the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think-tank, told CBC News. "The issue has become unhinged from substantive consideration and is now really kind of a crucible for many larger desires, aspirations and disagreements. Its symbolic resonance is driving the question and has been for some time."

In Obama's second term, environmental concerns have become a priority. Internationally, the U.S. sealed a major greenhouse gas agreement with China. At home, the White House has gone after dirty coal-fired power plants, pushed clean energy alternatives like wind and solar, and doubled fuel efficiency standards for cars.

Approving Keystone wouldn't just be inconsistent with Obama's recent policy moves, but more importantly it could also undermine his larger ambitions to fight climate change. By all accounts, the president is keenly aware of his obligations to the planet.

President Obama arriving at the TransCanada Stillwater pipe yard in Cushing, Okla. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

"People have to see it and feel it and breathe it. And that makes things a little scarier, because it indicates that we're already losing a lot of time," he said in a recent hour-long interview with Rolling Stone. "But, potentially, it gives us the chance to build the kind of political consensus, not just in America but internationally, that's going to be necessary to solve this enormous problem."

In his remaining time in office, Obama appears dedicated to convincing Americans and the rest of the world to share his urgency about climate change.

Fair or not, that means he can't approve Keystone XL, now a type of shorthand for picking sides in the climate debate, even if he wanted to.

And here's the thing. He actually might want to.

Obama's energy policies recognize the world still runs on fossil fuels. Under his watch, U.S. oil supply has increased by millions of barrels a day. He also hasn't stood in the way of fracking, liquefied natural gas export terminals, or offshore drilling.

Rather than curtail supply, his approach to the long game is wrapped up in reducing demand.

'Inevitable' is in the eye of the beholder

All of that makes little difference to Keystone.

Harper can undoubtedly see the writing on the wall, which is why he's looking past Obama's pending rejection and towards the 2016 U.S. election.

"We're past it right now with this president, but the process is still open," said Eric Johnson, a political consultant at Strategy Corp. in Ottawa. "You get a veto, you get a decline, you come back with a renewed process that meets whatever criteria you missed and you reapply."

If a Republican takes the White House, Harper knows Keystone will have the full support of the Oval Office. All of the Democratic candidates, on the other hand, oppose the project. At face value, that means a Democratic win would push Keystone back another four years, at best.

For the $8-billion project to make financial sense, TransCanada will need to keep the pipeline full of bitumen for decades. When the line was broached in 2008 that wasn't much of a concern.

If the project is pushed back until 2023 or beyond, it's worth wondering what the world will look like then. With Elon Musk busy building Teslas and Apple eyeing an electric car, will Americans still be driving the same way in 2035? How about 2045?

This is the world Obama sees coming. Harper, clearly, sees it differently.

Inevitably, one of them will be right.

About the Author

Paul Haavardsrud

Paul Haavardsrud writes for CBC's western business desk in Calgary. He is also a producer on CBC Radio’s national business desk where he talks about business on Radio One in the afternoons. Prior to that he worked for newspapers. On Twitter, he’s @paulhaavardsrud.

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