Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Approving the Keystone Pipeline Project

Reading Time: 3 minutes

If there is one issue that has pitted the Canadian government against a U.S. administration in recent years, it has been the Keystone Pipeline XL project.  The project is meant to transport crude oil from the Alberta oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico.  Final approval of the trans-border pipeline rests with President Obama.

It is fair to say that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping that the Obama administration would decide to approve the project during its first term in office.  In addition, the Canadian prime minister showed remarkable restraint when President Obama was facing reelection in 2012, knowing the president had to wrestle with a portion of his political base.  Instead, Harper used discreet diplomacy. 

Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer proved to be an effective spokesperson and promoter.  Having a strong environmental background, Doer pushed the case in a methodical manner with U.S. legislators and administration officials behind the scenes.  The case for Keystone and North American energy security can be compelling.

Obama eventually laid out his parameters for a decision: there had to be no significant effect on climate change, as determined after the completion of expert analysis that would go beyond the politics of the issue.  While Obama seems to question the projected job creation numbers from Keystone, much of his labor union support appears favorable to approval of the project. 

His environmental allies and the overall environmental lobby, however, have been adamant in rejecting the project.  Hollywood stars such as Robert Redford did commercials arguing that the Keystone Pipeline was unsound environmentally and that it added to carbon emissions—hence, the importance of the studies for administration officials.

The just-released study by the U.S. Department of State, now under the direction of anti-climate change advocate John Kerry, indicates that Keystone would have minimal effect on climate change.  This is a very positive development for the supporters of Keystone. 

Already in Canada, reactions to the study would seem to indicate that the project is now on its way to approval.  After all, there is some bipartisan support—the Republicans made approval of the pipeline a 2012 election promise, and there are Democratic senators up for re-election in so-called red states that are hoping for Obama to say yes to Keystone. 

However, not so fast.  U.S. Administration officials reiterate that the process is not yet over, and that government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must react to the State Department’s study.  Some anti-Keystone advocates are also planning court action, claiming that the authors of the report have had close ties to the oil industry in the past.

With Obama’s second term moving to the half-way mark and potential lame duck status, the Harper government has removed the gloves.  It seems aligned with the Republican Party approach, with an eye on the U.S. mid-term election in November 2014. 

Recently, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird aggressively pressured Secretary Kerry in a public way, and the Harper government is displaying greater daylight with the Obama administration on other policy matters, such as those in the Middle East.  Knowing that Obama has the final say and is not running for re-election, one can ask:  Is this smart politics on the part of the Canadian government?

Maybe it is time for the Canadian government to adjust its strategy, as the case for Keystone was likely strengthened with the State Department’s report.  Rather than corner Obama into a decision, it may be wiser to make the case even more compelling to influencers and decision-makers in both countries.  For instance, the debate about pipeline construction over rail transport has gained traction in recent months, and with good reason. 

Also, Harper could make some positive overtures with the UN on world environmental concerns.  Abandoning the Kyoto Protocol did nothing to advance the Harper government’s environmental credentials.  Finally, a more direct and discreet push by Canadian officials on Obama himself at the Summit of the Three Amigos later this month—and with the Democrats, who fear losing Senate control in the November elections—may be more promising than aligning themselves so publicly with the Boehner-led Republicans. 

At the end of the day, it could be smarter politics and achieve the results that the Canadian government wishes.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada-U.S. relations, Keystone Pipeline
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter