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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address during swearing-in ceremonies on the West front of the U.S Capitol. (JIM BOURG/REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address during swearing-in ceremonies on the West front of the U.S Capitol. (JIM BOURG/REUTERS)

John Ibbitson

Obama’s inaugural address changes the odds on Keystone approval Add to ...

Stephen Harper had good reason to be happy Barack Obama was inaugurated Monday for a second term as president of the United States. Canadians love the 44th President, which will make it easier for the Prime Minister to advance the Beyond the Border trade and security initiative. But there’s a “but.”

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If Mr. Obama meant what he said in his inaugural address about taking action on climate change and on renewable energy, then those initiatives will have major implications for the Conservative government.

Simply put: Anyone who believes that approval of the Keystone XL pipeline will be a slam dunk should read the speech carefully. Because every flag it raises is red.

Inaugural addresses traditionally stress themes of unity and progress, but this one was different. Mr. Obama appeared determined to give notice that his second term will embrace an activist agenda, whatever the Republicans in Congress might think.

He vowed to fight to preserve social programs and health care, while also reigning in the deficit – which can only mean a new round of tax hikes.

He vowed to fight to advance the rights of women and of gays and lesbians, to fight for immigration reform and stricter gun laws.

And he paid particular attention to the question of global warming.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” the President vowed.

He vowed also to commit America to a future of clean energy. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult,” he acknowledged. “But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise.”

Those paragraphs were of particular interest to Duane Bratt, departmental chair of Policy Studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

Before the inaugural address, “at the end of the day I thought Keystone would get done,” said Prof. Bratt in an interview. “I’m not sure now.”

Mr. Obama vetoed the original plan for the Keystone XL pipeline – which would deliver oil from the Alberta oil sands to American refineries – citing environmental concerns.

An environmental review of a proposed new route is complete, the Nebraska governor is expected to give the new route his blessing, and many observers have predicted swift approval from a White House concerned about energy security.

But now Mr. Obama has decreed that action on climate change will be a major priority in his second term.

Putting a price on carbon through a cap-and-trade system to limit emissions is one way the administration could tackle the issue. That too would have consequences for Canada.

The Harper government has insisted that its own actions on climate must mirror those of the United States, since only a continental policy makes environmental and economic sense. If the Americans inaugurate a cap-and-trade regime, the Harper government will have no choice but to follow suit.

But the necessary legislation will have a difficult time clearing Congress, given stern resistance from both Republicans and from Democrats in coal-producing states.

Vetoing the pipeline, on the other hand, can be done through executive decree, without consulting Congress. New technologies in extracting shale oil could increase American self-sufficiency. Saying no to Keystone would signal that this President is serious about combating global warming, even if Congress isn’t .

That doesn’t mean that a veto is certain. “There are a lot of economic interests supporting the pipeline,” Prof. Bratt observes. There are construction jobs at stake, and oil refineries that need Alberta oil. “But now you’ve got the environmental card raised higher.”

We’ll just have to wait. And – for those who support Keystone, including Mr. Harper – worry.

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