OPINION | Kenney faces headache and humiliation as Biden prepares to kill Keystone XL

When word leaked this week that Joe Biden would pull the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline project the first day he’s sworn in as president, the only person who seemed shocked was Premier Jason Kenney.

Time is running out to save Alberta's billion-dollar gamble on Keystone XL, writes columnist Graham Thomson

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a press conference in Edmonton last year. Kenney says he hopes to be able to speak to Joe Biden about President-elect's plans for the Keystone XL pipeline (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.

When word leaked this week that Joe Biden would pull the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline project the first day he's sworn in as president, the only person who seemed shocked was Premier Jason Kenney.

"We hope president-elect Biden will show respect for Canada and will sit down and at the very least talk to us," said Kenney during an online news conference where he lectured, hectored, and pleaded with the Biden administration.

Politically speaking, Kenney was at times on his knees begging, on his toes dancing, shaking his fist, shaking his head, and bending over backwards to justify sinking $1.5 billion into the troubled project in 2020 and promising another $6 billion in loan guarantees in 2021. 

It was like watching a tap dancer trying to juggle as he set his hair on fire.

Kenney, of course, should have seen this coming since March last year when he announced the "wise investment."

It was no investment but a gamble on a troubled project.

He called it a "bold move."

That should have been the first red flag.

Whenever politicians describe something they're doing as "bold" they mean controversial or contentious or risky.

Kenney, it turns out, meant all three.

Another red flag was Kenney acknowledging the project "never would have moved forward" without $7.5 billion in support from the Alberta public. When governments jump in where private corporations fear to tread, plan for a rough landing.

TransCanada's Keystone pipeline facilities are seen in Hardisty, Alta., on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

And, of course, there was this red flag big enough to cover the pipeline's proposed 2,000-kilometre route from Alberta to Nebraska: "I've been against Keystone from the beginning. It is tar sands that we don't need, that in fact is a very, very high pollutant." That was Biden on the campaign trail promising to take action against climate change.

Hot button issue

Just as Keystone has become a symbol of economic salvation for Alberta, it has also become a symbol of all the evils of global warming. Both are simplistic tropes. Building Keystone won't solve Alberta's systemic economic problems. Killing it won't end global warming.

But, boy, it's been a lightning rod for more than a decade.

Keystone was twice rejected under the presidency of Barack Obama and even though it received approval under Donald Trump, Biden promised to scrap the project should he become president.

He'll be sworn in on Wednesday.

Kenney says cancelling the Keystone expansion project "would be, in our view, an economic and strategic error that would set back Canada-U.S. relations with the United States' most important trading partner and strategic ally: Canada."

WATCH | Kenney's message for Joe Biden

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney urges incoming U.S. president to avoid 'rash decisions' about Keystone XL

2 years ago
Duration 1:31
Plan to cancel Keystone Xl pipeline will impact Canada-U.S. relations, the Canadian economy and tens of thousands of jobs, says Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

Kenney is falling into the same political conceit that has beguiled Alberta premiers for decades: the belief that they or Alberta or even Canada really matters on the U.S. stage when partisan politics is involved.

Yes, we are major trading partners but, to paraphrase Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's father, we are a mouse sleeping next to an elephant. And the elephant isn't taking our calls.

Almost 20 years ago Ralph Klein travelled to Washington in a futile attempt to open up the closed U.S. border to Alberta beef during the mad cow scare.

Others including Alison Redford and Jim Prentice tried to educate U.S. politicians and business leaders about the oil sands and its strategic importance in North America, as if highly placed Americans had never heard of Alberta.

They have, but they'll only act in Alberta's interests if it's in their interests.

Kenney seems to be under the assumption that if he can just get Biden, or someone close to him, on the phone, he could convince the new president to overturn an election promise to shut down Keystone.

But Biden made an election promise — just like Kenney did in 2019 to scrap Alberta's carbon tax.

Perhaps Biden should simply send Kenney a four-word email the premier would understand: "promise made, promise kept."

Kenney asked Biden to "show respect for Canada" and sit down to talk.

But where was Kenney's respect last November when he suggested Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was "brain-dead" because her state waged a legal fight last summer against Enbridge's Line 5?

Whitmer isn't just any U.S. governor. She was a national co-chair of Biden's presidential campaign. 

Five days after Kenney's slur, Whitmer took legal action to shut down the pipeline completely this year. Maybe American politicians do listen to Kenney, after all.

For Kenney, the impending death of the Keystone project isn't just an end to thousands of construction jobs or another hit to Alberta's beleaguered economy, it's a political humiliation and a harbinger of things to come as the world moves away from fossil fuel.

Kenney campaigned in the 2019 Alberta election on a promise of jobs, economy and pipelines. Thanks in large part to the pandemic, Alberta now has some of the highest jobless rates in the country, the depressed price of oil has undercut the economy, and, what must be the most galling of all for a staunch conservative like Kenney, the only pipeline to tidewater under construction is the federal government-owned Alberta-to-West Coast Trans Mountain pipeline project.

There are two questions looming: can Canada convince Biden at the last minute to change his mind on Keystone?

If not, how long before Kenney hits his default button and lays the blame at Trudeau's feet?


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