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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Is Keystone XL Obama’s line in the sand? Add to ...

Here are President Barack Obama’s words from his second inaugural address: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Thence followed 10 sentences about climate change.

In Edmonton and Ottawa, where governments had grown confident that Mr. Obama, once re-elected, would give the green light to the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta’s bitumen oil deposits to the Gulf of Mexico, those sentences were at least worrisome, if not menacing.

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Why did Mr. Obama do it? Climate change was scarcely raised in the election campaign. A Republican-controlled House of Representatives will block any cap-and-trade system for greenhouse-gas emissions, plus just about anything else to reduce emissions.

With so many other priorities – the budget deficit, gun control, immigration – why did the President spend so much of his inaugural speech on an issue the Alberta and Canadian governments figured had disappeared from his radar screen. Maybe he was just playing to history, in which case the sentences will disappear into the political ether. Or maybe he actually believes what he said.

Once re-elected, Canadian governments presumed Mr. Obama would approve Keystone – and, on balance, he probably still will. But his speech sent a frisson of apprehension through Canada and the private companies backing the project.

Mr. Obama had delayed a decision on Keystone before the election, despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s saying U.S. approval should be a “no-brainer.” Mr. Obama actually has a brain and, like Mr. Harper, he has political antennae. Just as Mr. Harper nixed a foreign takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan for largely political reasons, Mr. Obama delayed Keystone to please environmentalists who’d supported him.

Now, as then, the President’s decision will swirl around politics. TransCanada Pipelines, Keystone’s proponent, has changed the route in Nebraska, thereby bringing the Republican governor onside. Trade unions, a key part of the Democrats’ constituency, want the jobs and economic spinoffs Keystone would bring. Fifty-five senators, including nine Democrats, signed a letter urging Mr. Obama to approve the project.

Oil from Canada, bitumen or otherwise, is deemed by foreign-policy analysts to be more “secure” than that from elsewhere. If Alberta oil didn’t make it to the Gulf of Mexico refineries, oil from somewhere else would arrive. Canada is safe, reliable and friendly. Who could ask for anything more?

So foreign-policy considerations plus parts of the Democratic Party coalition would suggest that Keystone will get the nod, if not soon then perhaps by midyear.

And yet, what about those inaugural sentences? The largest U.S. environmental groups overwhelmingly oppose Keystone, although the journal Nature recently said bitumen oil isn’t as dirty as critics say and thus the pipeline should go ahead.

These groups, who hailed Mr. Obama’s pre-election delay, supported him on voting day and still do. They expect payback. And what about the new Secretary of State, John Kerry? He spent years in the Senate railing against greenhouse-gas emissions, sponsoring bills and urging action.

His department has to make a recommendation to the President, who is free to ignore or accept it. In one ear, he will hear the national security arguments for Keystone and the negative impact its rejection would have on relations with the Harper government; in the other, he will hear echoes of his own words as a senator. (He was non-committal on Friday after meeting Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird in Washington.)

Ultimately, Mr. Obama will decide. He has identified climate change as a major challenge and spoke in that inaugural speech about taking the “path toward sustainable energy sources,” a path that, by definition, would exclude or minimize the use of fossil fuels.

He once promised a cap-and-trade system for emissions, but that idea died in Congress even when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. It has no chance of being revived any time soon.

What’s left to him are executive orders that don’t need congressional approval. Did Mr. Obama mean what he said? Is Keystone his line in the sand?

 

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