Having enjoyed the last week in the sunny Berkeley, California, it felt odd to turn on the car radio to hear the local disc jockeys discussing the tarsands and the merits of a pipeline that would pump unrefined bitumen from Canada to Texas. Being one of the most liberal areas in the U.S. – there were more than a few cars sporting “Bernie Sanders 2016″ bumper stickers – the discussion revolved around climate change and the environmental impact of the tarsands.
So, to the shock of no one who was paying attention, American President Barack Obama rejected the TransCanada corporation’s application for the cross-border permit needed to link the Keystone XL pipeline across the Canada-United States border.
It had become clear over the past few years that the project was unlikely to be approved by the American President. While counter-messages from the oil industry and environmental groups set the tone internationally, opposition to the pipeline by a handful of rural landowners in Nebraska is what ended up tying the pipeline project in the courts.
While the rejection of Keystone XL represents a victory for the projects opponents, it also represents a failure of Canadian foreign policy. For the past decade, the federal and provincial governments have been subsidizing TransCanada by spending significant amount of time and resources providing public funding for the pipeline through lobbying activities.
Elected officials like former Premier Alison Redford and her cabinet ministers were essentially publicly-funded lobbyists as they travelled to the U.S. dozens of times to advocate for Keystone XL and other oil industry projects. The decision by Jim Prentice to appoint well-connected Member of Parliament Rob Merrifield to the post of Alberta’s representative in Washington D.C. was supposed to give a boost to the government’s pipeline lobbying goals (he was later dismissed by Premier Rachel Notley). And the government led by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was reported to have paid at least $3 million to lobbyists in Washington D.C.
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper, which was rejected by Canadians on Oct. 19, had arguably been the most pro-oil industry administration we have seen in decades. But instead of trying to build a national consensus in favour of projects like Keystone XL, the Conservative government demonized opposition to the pipelines in Canada. Opponents of Bill C-51 claimed that new spy laws passed by the former Conservative government with support from the Liberals could target Canadian citizens who oppose the expansion of oil pipelines.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared his support for TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline in a speech to the Calgary Petroleum Club in October 2013 while also criticizing the Conservative government’s approach to lobbying for the pipeline in Washington D.C. “They have poked and prodded, annoyed and irritated the Obama administration at every turn. Largely, I suspect, because they don’t know how to work with people who don’t share their ideology,” Mr. Trudeau told Calgary’s oil elite.
While Mr. Trudeau has not publicly supported TransCanada’s other major pipeline project, the Energy East pipeline, new Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr faces a challenging task of managing the interprovincial politics of pipelines. An Energy East pipeline that would would pump oil from Alberta to port terminals in New Brunswick or Quebec, keeping jobs in Canada, was endorsed by Ms. Notley and New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant last month.
The appointment of Ottawa MP Catherine McKenna as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and former environment minister Stephane Dion as Minister of Foreign Affairs signals that the new federal government may not be as singularly focused on pipelines as the previous government. Mr. Dion is well versed in environmental policy after serving as environment minister from 2004 to 2006 and spearheading the Green Shift policy while leading the Liberal opposition in the 2008 election.
One of the new federal government’s first major tasks will be to bring its ideas to address climate change to COP21, the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, being held Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 in Paris, France. Ms. McKenna will be advised by a strong Alberta voice in these matters, with former Pembina Institute executive director Marlo Reynolds, a Canmore, Alberta resident, as her chief of staff.
Ms. Notley and Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips will also be attending the conference in Paris.
The Pembina Institute may have spotted one of the biggest changes that the rejection of TransCanada’s Keystone XL signifies for Canada’s new foreign relations and energy strategies. In a statement released yesterday, Alberta director Simon Dyer said the “decision by President Obama reiterates that climate change is a key consideration for all energy infrastructure projects going forward.”