The dead parrot that was the Keystone XL pipeline and why Obama killed it

Six years ago, not long after it was introduced, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the southern U.S. really was a slam dunk. Then a whole bunch of things happened, Neil Macdonald explains.

For many reasons, Keystone became a symbol of everything that was wrong on the environment front

The funeral procession: U.S. President Barack Obama along with Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry head for the podium to deliver the Keystone death notice on Friday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

About six years ago, when nobody was talking about Keystone XL, I asked a Washington oil-and-gas lobbyist who was close to the Obama administration whether this pipeline was going to be a problem.

"Nope," was the reply. "Just a question of going through the process."

So thought we all, back then. And today, President Barack Obama finally put the fork in it. Not in America's national interest, he said.

So I called that lobbyist to ask what happened.

Lobbyists can either talk boringly on the record or honestly off the record, so we went off the record. Here, more or less, was our conversation, with me helping explain a few things along the way:

"What happened was a lot of things. BP [the Deepwater Horizon oil-well rupture] happened. And for about a year, the Gulf of Mexico was on fire.

"And then the San Bruno fire happened [actually, a gas pipeline blew up in San Francisco with such force that bystanders said it sounded like a jet crash or an earthquake, and it scared the living daylights out of everybody and killed eight people].

"And so oil and gas, which until that point was just evil, got more evil."

And then of course anti-Keystone protesters led by actress Darryl Hannah and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. started chaining themselves to the White House gates and getting arrested.

"The environmentalists got really smart. They realized this wasn't Congress approving this, this was the president, and we can affect that. So they did.

"Until then, some environmentalists cared about carbon, some cared about mercury, some cared about sage grouse, some cared about snail darters.

"But they said let's rally on Keystone. And they did. It was their focal point. They raised a lot of money."

Don't force my hand

But, I asked, didn't Congress sort of generally support it? There are all sorts of pipelines in America, after all.

"Well, Waxman-Markey died. [Meaning the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which would have limited greenhouse gases and was passionately supported by just about every important environmental group in the U.S., except for the ones that thought it was too weak.]

"And Obama needed something. And so Keystone just became a complete symbol to environmentalists.

"It was just like how NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] became a symbol of anxiety about our jobs. A cultural symbol. Keystone became one of those symbols."

But aren't people in the Midwest, where Keystone was crossing, sort of pro-business?

"Well, TransCanada Pipeline [the owner of Keystone] did it the way they have always done it, pursuing the negotiations and the land acquisitions simultaneously.

"That was a mistake. The eminent domain stuff in Nebraska was seen as arrogant and pissed people off."

Demonstrators holding signs reading "No KXL," referring to the Keystone XL pipeline, interrupt U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a campaign stop in Portland, Maine, in September. Four days later she announced she would kill the project if she became president. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

That was a reference to the American legal doctrine of eminent domain, which basically means overriding property rights in the public interest. The Canadian pipeline company traipsed around Nebraska, a fortress of rugged individualism, forcing landowners to accept easements.

As Forbes magazine put it at the time, in discussing eminent domain: "It is debatable whether building  Keystone aides the health or safety of America, or even our general interest." A Nebraska court essentially agreed, thwarting TCPL, but the political damage was done.

The lobbyist continued: "And then the Republicans in Congress tried to force Obama's hand [by passing legislation allowing Keystone to go ahead] and Obama basically said the answer is maybe, but if you're gonna force my hand, the answer is no."

Obama vetoed the legislation earlier this year.

All politics local

And that, in short, is the Washington insider view of what happened to Keystone. It's a pretty realistic view.

What it leaves out, of course, is the aggressive, hectoring approach of Stephen Harper's government.

Harper called Keystone's approval a "no brainer," which implies that anyone with a brain, like Obama, wouldn't say no.

His ministers made it a singular focus of trips to Washington. And some of their arguments, at the time, did make logical, if not political, sense.

But it was annoying. One Canada-U.S. relations expert said a couple of years ago that Obama administration people "ran for cover" when Canadian ministers arrived, knowing what they'd have to put up with.

In Ottawa, American ambassador Bruce Heyman was ignored. His initial meeting with then foreign minister John Baird was ugly and uncomfortable, and Heyman simply couldn't get in to see Harper.

"I do talk to the premiers," he told me at a social gathering last summer.

A Canadian prime minister freezing out an American ambassador just doesn't make sense, but such was the state of relations.

Anyway, it was all local American politics in the end, despite Obama's high-handed rhetoric today about leading the way and saving the planet and keeping Canada's "dirtier oil" out of America.

(If any Canadian reporter used a term like that, there'd be an immediate call from one of the oilpatch PR people — the ones who transformed the name of the "tar sands" to the "oil sands.")

"As long as I'm president of the United States," Obama intoned, "America will hold ourselves to the same high standard to which we hold the rest of the world."

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion responds to Keystone XL rejection

7 years ago
Duration 1:57
Stéphane Dion says Keystone XL rejection sign of need for a "fresh start" and bolstering Canada's environmental reputation

Oh, please. Some of my neighbours when I lived in Washington had four or five cars, and nobody really took home insulation seriously. Energy taxes there are political poison.

At least Obama had the honesty to point out that Keystone's promise of American jobs and lower gas prices is less alluring in 2015 than it once was: gasoline is under $2 US a gallon in several states, and America is at five per cent unemployment.

Keystone, in other words, became yesterday's bagels. Or, in Monty Python terms, a dead parrot.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's response was what you'd expect: We're disappointed, but we nonetheless vow to work closely with the United States, etc., etc.

Trudeau, like Obama, clearly sees himself as a planet-saver.

But really, Keystone has been blue and cold and dead for years. Like the parrot. Everyone knew it. Hillary Clinton openly intended to kill it if Obama didn't.

And what was Canada supposed to say, anyway? That it's a "no-brainer"?


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?