The signature Keystone XL pipeline project, backed by two of Canada's major federal party leaders, now has a new foe: the woman who stands a reasonable chance of winning the White House.
Hillary Clinton, who polls suggest is the leading contender for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, declared Tuesday she is against Keystone XL, which would carry Canadian oil-sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries via Nebraska.
Her announcement is another blow for TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone project, which both Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have supported as a means of creating jobs and getting Canada's petroleum resources to market.
It lands in the middle of the Canadian federal election where Mr. Harper, Mr. Trudeau and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair have clashed on the right energy and environmental policies for the country as it grapples with the impact of weak oil prices.
Ms. Clinton framed the news as a necessary act of decisiveness after years of debate on the file. A decision on Keystone that has been pending for seven years is important as it has become "a distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change," she said in Iowa. "Therefore, I oppose it."
Mr. Harper's campaign countered by arguing Keystone has significant backing among the American public.
"This is not a debate between Canada and the U.S. We know the American people support the project," Conservative campaign spokesman Stephen Lecce said.
The Tories declined to comment further on Ms. Clinton, saying, "We will not engage in presidential primary debates" taking place in the United States.
"Keystone XL will create jobs for Canadian and American workers and strengthen energy security in North America," Mr. Lecce said.
It was just this summer that Mr. Harper signalled he'd given up hope that the Obama administration would ever approve Keystone and suggested he was waiting for a change of president in Washington before it could proceed.
"I believe that whether this project goes ahead or not under this administration, it will ultimately go ahead under a subsequent administration," Mr. Harper, who has called Keystone a "no brainer," said in July.
Ms. Clinton's opposition on Tuesday stands in stark contrast to remarks she made in October, 2010, when she suggested the Obama administration was leaning to approving Keystone. "We are inclined to do so and we are for several reasons … we're either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada," she said nearly five years ago.
Keystone appears to be the one major Canadian pipeline project that Mr. Trudeau unequivocally supports. He backs a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic along B.C.'s northern coast, a stand that would rule out the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, and he appears to be withholding judgment on both the Energy East pipeline and Kinder Morgan's plan to expand the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to B.C.
Mr. Trudeau's campaign painted the stalling of Keystone as a failure of Conservative foreign policy.
"The Conservatives have failed to move the yardstick on one of the most important infrastructure projects of our generation, the Keystone XL Pipeline. Mr. Harper has needlessly antagonized our closest friend and most important market," said Cameron Ahmad with the Liberal campaign.
"It remains a fundamental role of the federal government to open up markets abroad for Canadian resources, and to help create responsible and sustainable ways to get those resources to those markets."
For its part, TransCanada pointed to a recent American Petroleum Institute poll that showed 68 per cent of U.S. voters support the project, and that 67 per cent said failure to make a decision to approve has hurt the economy. It vowed to keep pressing ahead with seeking U.S. approval.
"The U.S. imports millions of barrels of oil every day, so where do Americans want their oil to come from?" TransCanada spokesman Davis Sheremata said in an e-mail.
"Do they want it from Iran and Venezuela, where American values of freedom and democracy are not shared? Or do they want Canadian and American crude oil transported through Keystone XL? We have always believed the answer is clear."
Environmental activists in Canada cheered Ms. Clinton's announcement. Mr. Harper's "'no-brainer' pipeline is now supported only by the Donald Trumps of the world," Greenpeace Canada's climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema said in a statement.
"It's time our politicians recognized that failing to address a growing climate crisis and trying to push high-carbon oil into a carbon constrained world is a losing proposition."
Ms. Clinton's formal opposition to the project comes seven years after TransCanada first applied to U.S. authorities to build the 830,000-barrel-a-day pipeline to the largest U.S. refining region from Alberta.
Since then, President Barack Obama rejected it, and invited the company to reapply, rather than be pushed by Republican lawmakers to make a quick decision. TransCanada then split the proposal in two, so the southern leg between Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast could proceed without needing a presidential permit to cross the international border. That portion is already in service.
Mr. Obama has repeatedly delayed making a decision on the northern section extending through Nebraska, and has said any ruling would be based on whether Keystone XL and Canada's oil sands contribute to carbon pollution.
The Canadian oil patch has long wanted the project as a way to expose large quantities of bitumen production to the huge Gulf Coast refining market, which would reduce its price discount versus U.S. benchmark oil.
However, as delays persisted for years, oil companies increasingly turned to trains and expansions of existing pipelines to move their supplies to U.S. refineries, essentially working around the export bottleneck.
TransCanada has also proposed the $12-billion Energy East pipeline project to get the oil sands-derived crude to the Atlantic Coast, avoiding the U.S. controversy, though that proposal is not without its own detractors.
The collapse in crude prices over the past year has forced companies to slash spending and delay projects. That has lowered Canadian oil-output forecasts, lessening the urgency to add new capacity.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry's main lobby group, said it is still solidly beyond Keystone XL and its job-creation and economic-growth promises.
It pointed out that Keystone was vetted by the U.S. State Department twice, and got passing grades.
"Over the past six years, Keystone XL has undergone extensive regulatory and environmental review that made it clear the project will cause no undue environmental impacts, including no substantive change in [greenhouse gas] emissions," CAPP vice-president Greg Stringham said in an e-mail.
With reports from Kelly Cryderman and Reuters News Agency