John Kerry confirmation happy day for environmentalists

John Kerry's confirmation as US Secretary of State Tuesday sent shivers of joy down the spines of environmentalists but supporters of Canada's oilsands weren't too worried.

Democratic Senator is a well-known climate change believer

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was confirmed as America's next top diplomat in a unanimous vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. He brings a deep knowledge of international affairs and a strong environmental ties to the role. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

John Kerry's confirmation as U.S. Secretary of State Tuesday sent shivers of joy down the spines of environmentalists but supporters of Canada's oilsands weren't too worried.

The long-time Democratic Senator from Massachusetts is a well-known climate change believer. He's been referred to as a global-warming "hawk," an elected official who told his confirmation hearing that climate change is a "life-threatening issue."

"For all the changes that are taking place to agriculture, to our communities, to the ocean and so forth, then we're just ignoring what science is telling us. So I will be a passionate advocate about this [climate change]," he told the hearing.

The North American environmental movement is convinced they have an ally now in the highest echelon of power. 

"Kerry's been a leading climate advocate for over three decades in the senate. So we expect that he'll bring that core to everything the State Department does. It's in his DNA," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director with the Natural Resources Defence Council, an American environmental lobby group.

Keystone XL pipeline

Schmidt hopes Kerry's presence will deliver climate activists a victory on the Keystone XL pipeline file.

But he better not hold his breath.

Keystone is a lightning rod of controversy. The proposed pipe would carry oilsands crude from Alberta to the Texas coast for refining. It is awaiting the results of a U.S. State Department environmental study, which will help Barack Obama determine whether or not to grant the project a presidential permit.

Obama's second inauguration speech last week paid lip-service to action on climate change. And that has created uncertainty around the future of Keystone.

"No one I talked to seemed confident one way or the other in terms of what decision the United States is going to make on this," said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi upon his return from the World Economic Forum this week in Davos, Switzerland. He held meetings there with American officials.

But industry observers don't seem to concerned that Kerry will help block Keystone.

"Being a pragmatist and not a purist, the new secretary of state, Senator Kerry, will certainly be willing to go along with the building of Keystone because of the important economic and political gains to the United States," argued Jack Mintz, Director of the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

Keystone aside, Kerry does see future U.S. economic growth tied to a $6 trillion global energy market — the green energy market.

"The solution to climate change is energy policy. And the opportunities of energy policy so vastly outweigh the downsides," Kerry told senators at his confirmation hearing.

"You want to do business and do well in America? We’ve got to get into the energy race. Other countries are in it… This is a place for us to recognize what other countries are doing and what our states that are growing are doing," he added.

Canada and Kerry

Along with competition on the green energy file, Kerry will also present the Harper government with some challenges on environmental policy.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a vocal proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, says Canada hasn't done enough to ensure the U.S. government approves the controversial project. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"Right now, Canada doesn't have a track record that would reassure a serious analyst on climate change, a guy like John Kerry, who cares about this issue," said Clare Demerse of the Pembina Institute.

She said it won't escape Kerry's attention that Canada has no plan to regulate emissions from the oil and gas sector. Of all industrial sectors in Canada, oil and gas — and the oilsands, in particular — shows the largest growth in greenhouse gases.

Demerse hopes Kerry uses his profound knowledge of the issue to provide leadership in international negotiations for a climate treaty. She also thinks that will rub off on Canada.

"That means that we [Canada] really need to increase our ambition because, again, at the UN and in the international climate talks Canada really tends to look and take its lead from the U.S."

Kerry is expected to be sworn into his new office by the end of this week.