Joe Oliver's Take on Keystone: Fact or Fiction?

  • National Newswatch

“Trudeau's biggest problem in trying to sell the U.S. on KXL—hypocrisy—is largely of his own making.”  Joe OliverFormer Harper cabinet minister Joe Oliver engages in more than a little historical revisionism in accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of setting the stage for President Joe Biden's cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil sands crude to the United States.Former President Donald Trump approved Keystone in January 2017.  But its fate was sealed sixteen months earlier when Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, flanked by then Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry (now Biden's special envoy for climate), rejected the project, saying it would “undercut” US leadership in the fight against climate change.  Biden “strongly opposed” the pipeline then, said a spokesperson.  As president, he would “stop it for good.”If Trudeau's alleged “hostility to the energy industry” did not figure in the Keystone decision, neither was Canada collateral damage.  Keystone was controversial in the United States.  But Prime Minister Stephen Harper's failure to take meaningful action on climate change during his years in office helped bring about Obama's action.  Although the Harper government joined the Obama administration in committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, it took few measures to meet the agreed target.  Oil and gas regulations promised in 2006 never materialized.The warning signs about Keystone were evident as early as 2008 when Democratic presidential candidate Obama pledged to end US dependence on “dirty, dwindling, dangerously expensive” oil.  An advisor said an Obama presidency would shun oil sands energy if technology failed to reduce the industry's carbon missions.  Ignoring the warning, Ottawa and its Alberta and industry allies decided to “educate” Americans on the importance of oil sands exports to their country.That set the pattern for Canadian efforts to persuade over the next seven years.  When US ambassador David Jacobson told a Calgary audience in 2010 that “more needs to be done” to improve the industry's environmental performance, pipeline proponents tried to outdo their critics with a competing narrative of energy security, jobs and ethical oil claims.  They coopted friendly environmentalists and ignored the others.  A confident Harper called Keystone a “no-brainer.”In late 2011 the State Department delayed a recommendation for the president on Keystone to allow consideration of a route around an ecologically sensitive area of Nebraska.  Oliver, then Harper's minister of natural resources, warned that rejecting Keystone would force Ottawa to hasten efforts to sell to Asian markets via a proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.  He conveniently omitted that Gateway had been under consideration since 2006 and was seen as a complement to Keystone.  But Gateway faced growing opposition.  Foreshadowing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Harper (in a move that would advance neither's case) charged that “significant American interests,” the same ones who supported Obama's climate change policy and opposed Keystone, were bankrolling environmental groups against Gateway.Obama, who had said environmental impact would weigh as heavily as energy security and jobs in his Keystone determination, vetoed the pipeline claiming a review of a new route proposed by TC Energy, the project's builder, could not be completed before a deadline imposed by the Republican-led congress. TC Energy then filed a new application.  Harper claimed Obama's action reinforced the government's resolve to proceed with Gateway.  Still, Ottawa appeared confident of Keystone's approval.  “It responds to national security concerns and it will create jobs and economic activity in the United States,” said Oliver.Obama's pledge to act on climate change in his second inaugural address in January 2013 and Ambassador Jacobson encouragement to “take the lead” in lowering greenhouse gas emissions to make it “easier to export its energy,” prompted Ottawa to recast itself as an ally on climate.  The government maintained it was in lockstep with Washington in improving transportation fuel efficiency and was “very close” to finalizing long-awaited oil and gas regulations.  However, foreign minister John Baird struck a discordant note, falsely claiming that Canada was on course to “meet or exceed” US progress on climate and enjoined Washington to follow his government's lead in phasing out coal-fired power plants.In March 2013 the State Department supported the new Keystone route.  It concluded that oil sands crude was more polluting that conventional oil, but the pipeline would have little impact on the industry's expansion because other delivery methods were available.  While proponents claimed vindication, the Environmental Protection Agency challenged the State Department's analysis and recommended that Washington work with Ottawa to reduce oil sands emissions.  But Oliver thought Canada's environmental performance was just fine.  “I don't see the need for us to do things differently than we're currently doing.  We can stand tall on our record.”Harper's government began a public lobbying campaign touting Canadian-American friendship and Canada's reputation as a “world environmental leader.”  The federal and Alberta governments would take a “Team Canada” approach to Keystone, which Harper called “vital to both the economic growth and economic security” of the two countries.The gap between Canadian and American approaches was on full display in June 2013 when Obama said the pipeline's impact on climate would be “absolutely crucial in determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”  Oliver claimed that the State Department's conclusion had settled the issue.Obama went further telling the New York Times hat Canada “could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release.  We haven't seen specific plans to do so.”  It seemed that Harper's government had finally got the message.  Harper sent a letter to Obama proposing “joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector;” though that would not be easy because the Americans did not have an oil sands industry.Ottawa's cooperative approach was short-lived.  In a display of bad timing, Oliver tried to shift the focus off the oil sands by highlighting the polluting effects of US coal-fired power plants just days before Obama proposed regulations limiting their emissions.  Then, Harper inexplicably challenged the president telling a New York audience in September 2013 that he would not “take 'no' for an answer” if Keystone were rejected.As Harper's government prepared to launch a new pro-oil sands advertising campaign, Environment Canada estimated that Canada's emissions record would not meet the country's Copenhagen commitment because of oil sands expansion.The Keystone controversy would drag on for many months.  But the die was cast.  Obama killed Keystone in November 2015, just days after Justin Trudeau's government took power.Donald Barry is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary. He has written widely on Canadian foreign policy.