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Tom Steyer is America’s largest single political donor and a determined opponent of Alberta’s oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline project. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Tom Steyer is America’s largest single political donor and a determined opponent of Alberta’s oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline project. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Mr. No comes to Canada and delivers a pro-green message Add to ...

There is, to be sure, more than a little political naiveté in all this: As welcome as Mr. Steyer’s voice may be in Canadian environmental circles, it might not help their cause to have a wealthy Californian liberal suggesting that the people of Alberta ought to be happy to do away with their main source of sustenance. By conforming to their foreign-radical stereotype, Mr. Steyer could prove to be a gift to Mr. Harper’s Conservatives.

As well, he has no idea if Keystone will be approved or not – despite the hundreds of millions he has devoted to Barack Obama’s Democratic Party.

He is hopeful, based on statements the President has made on climate and energy policy, including a major speech he devoted to the subject in Georgetown last year, that the decision will go against the pipeline.

“I don’t have any information,” Mr. Steyer says. “I will say that, according to the criteria that he laid out in his Georgetown speech, he said that if ‘it leads to significantly increased carbon-dioxide emissions, I will not permit it.’ And we believe strongly that it does. So if that’s the case, we’re taking him at his word.”

Not everyone in the environmental movement is so confident. In January, the State Department released its final environmental-impact assessment, which concluded that while oil-sands petroleum is significantly more carbon-emitting than other fuel sources and poses a major climate threat, the quantity of emissions would not increase if the pipeline were built (because the oil would get to market through other means).

That report was hailed by Keystone supporters as a victory, because it seemed to invalidate Mr. Obama’s pledge that he wouldn’t approve the pipeline if it increased carbon emissions.

Mr. Steyer believes the report is simply wrong.

“I don’t accept the State Department report. I thought that report was deeply flawed in a number of respects, and I don’t accept their conclusion. So it is hard for me to use that as a baseline for analysis, honestly.”

In his view, the Keystone pipeline will put a lot more oil-sands petroleum exhaust into the atmosphere. Alberta oil, he believes, would cost significantly more to bring to market by rail or via less direct pipeline routes, enough so that, at $75 a barrel (the projected oil price over the next few years), it wouldn’t be competitive.

In other words, contrary to the reassurances offered by other factors, he believes that scuppering Keystone is worth the effort because it would effectively sink the entire Alberta oil economy.

So cutting off access to markets by stopping pipeline construction remains his key strategy – as well as trying to persuade people that alternative energy can be just as big an employer and revenue source as oil.

Keystone or not, Mr. Steyer believes that he is winning. He points to recent announcements to shareholders by Exxon and Shell that they expect their businesses to be affected by climate change.

“Both those huge, worldwide energy companies within the last two weeks came out and said the science is basically settled on this, that we need responsible policies to reduce the risk. I don’t know what planet you live on where you start saying Shell and Exxon are left-wing communists.”

Add to that a series of large-scale studies released this month that confirm the scientific consensus on the link between carbon emissions and climate change – by the United Nations, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – and Mr. Steyer says the “climate debate” has ceased to be a debate at all.

“I think it’s a charade that this is a two-sided argument. You know, the dog is not barking. There is no other side. We are not hearing factual, learned responses to these studies – we are hearing deafening silence. I’m not remotely despairing. That is not the adjective or verb that I would use.”

He rages at the accusation, made recently by conservatives in the United States, that he is backing clean energy simply because he stands, as an investor in the industry, to profit from it.

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