The Keystone decision: America's love-hate with Canada's oil

Barack Obama won't be the first U.S. president to face environmental protesters. But if he gives in to those who want to stop the Keystone Pipeline extension, he could change the face of Alberta's oil sands, Henry Champ writes.

Lafayette Park, just across  from the White House,  is a usually peaceful square block of grass, trees and statues of obscure American heroes. Sometimes, though, it is the unwilling host of protest demonstrations against sitting presidents.

In the past, it has not been uncommon to smell the tear gas and see picketers battling police, while officers on horses move the crowds back and forth as protesters are dragged away. All fodder for the nightly newscasts.

But this past weekend, the park saw a different kind of defiance.

On Saturday, at least 65 environmentalist and energy activists were arrested, almost politely, in Lafayette Park. On Sunday, another 45 or so were taken into custody and the organizers are promising to have more arriving to take their places everyday for the next two weeks.

These protesters would be volunteers who are prepared to invade the accepted no-go areas in front of the White House to get themselves arrested in the hope that their efforts will lead the president to turn down a pipeline extension permit that would allow more crude from Canada's oil sands to be refined in the southern U.S.

That pipeline, known as Keystone XL, a $13 billion project by Calgary-based TransCanada Pipeline, has been under review by the State Department since 2008 and the department has promised its recommendation will be released this month.

A polite, almost Canadian protest. U.S. Park Police handcuff and arrest a Keystone pipeline protestor in front of the White House on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2011. (Associated Press)

State has the call on this application as the pipeline crosses the international border. But theirs isn't the final word.

Whatever State's recommendation, there will be public hearings on the extension and then a final decision from President Barack Obama. That decision is expected in December.

Jobs versus

When it comes to issues like this that inflame passions, there is never any certainty what a president will decide, despite the cards that appear on the table. What's more, that lack of certainty is amplified in the run-up to an election year.       

The issue in the U.S right now is jobs and proponents of the pipeline, who include such rare bedfellows as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many of the nation's major trade unions, say the construction of the line will employ some 13,000 new workers.

Another 7,000 will be needed to manufacture the pipeline material and proponents also estimate that 118,000 secondary jobs will be created as well.  Congressional Republicans have clearly signaled that they will support the pipeline's construction, not the least because most of the anticipated jobs will be found in Republican states. 

For them, it is also the kind of issue that puts an environmentally conscious Democratic president on the hot seat.

The environmental risk

Under normal times, some of the arguments against extending the Keystone pipeline would be potent.

Those being arrested outside the White House argue that the transportation of Canada's thick, heavy oil sands crude, with its many impurities, poses a greater environmental threat than conventional oil.

The pipeline runs through rich farmland in six states, crosses numerous rivers and aquifers, all of which would be at great risk if there were leaks.

The protesters also include the country's more vigorous environmental groups who argue it is time to wean the U.S. from its seemingly unquenchable thirst for petroleum and start investing in other energy sources.

One of the little ironies of the weekend demonstration is that the nature of the protesters fits the image many Americans would have of their northern neighbours: Genteel, polite, unassuming citizens who would greet an arresting officer by extending their wrists with a smile and a pleasant hello.

There are very few Canadians among the protesters, the vast majority of them and their leadership is American.

For its part, Ottawa wants this permit issued. It has hired the necessary lobbyists and the Canadian embassy here in Washington, as well as consulates across the country, is doing what it can.

Baird's shot across the bow

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Washington recently and made the Keystone pipeline a centrepiece of his meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Meeting later with the editorial board of the Washington Post, he told them that if  the permit was rejected, Canada would sell its oil to China.

Within a couple of days, the Post ran an editorial, bewailing the potential environmental harm and the continuing American reliance on imported oil. But Baird's warnings carried the day and, in the end, the Post urged the permit should be approved.

At Layfayette Park, the protesters hope the duration of their efforts, combined with the number of people arrested (some say the final tally could be 1,500 or so) and the appearance, we are told, of certain Hollywood A-listers, will galvanize public support.

For Obama, it is a conundrum. He promised to be the green president, protecting the environment and overseeing the creation of hundreds of thousands of alternative-energy jobs as the U.S. lessened its dependence on fossil fuels.

But those green jobs are among the millions that have not materialized as the economic downturn continues.

As noted, the reality of elections can lead those in office to decisions they might have once promised they would never consider. Even presidents.