Are Republicans in the U.S. Congress inadvertently sabotaging the Harper government's effort to win approval from the Obama administration for the Keystone XL pipeline?
Ahead of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, Republicans in the Senate have published a letter demanding that the President approve the long-delayed project "as soon as possible" while GOP leaders in the House of Representatives are considering attaching a Keystone rider to debt legislation that must be passed by the end of February.
Though the administration's timetable is hard to predict, some analysts in Washington believe a decision is imminent. Eurasia Group's Robert Johnston said recently he expects the State Department to issue a final environment impact statement by the end of February, which would start a 90-day clock for a presidential ruling. Mr. Johnston rates approval as a 70 per cent probability.
However, President Obama is expected to pepper his State of the Union speech with promises to make progress on climate change, and environmentalists have zeroed in on Keystone XL as a litmus test in effort. Skeptics don't believe the President will undermine his own climate agenda before the mid-term elections in November by approving the contentious pipeline that will bring diluted bitumen from Canada's oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
By further politicizing the pipeline decision, the Republicans may be doing more harm than good to TransCanada Corp.'s lengthy effort to win a presidential permit. The Republican agenda is as much about embarrassing Mr. Obama in the politician realm as it is about getting a pipeline built – if not more so. If they impose a deadline that is not to Mr. Obama's liking, they could give him the excuse he wants to punt a decision once again beyond a looming election.
Two years ago, Republicans succeeded in forcing Mr. Obama to make a decision on KXL by attaching a 60-day deadline to a finance bill. The result: Mr. Obama refused to issue the needed permit but invited TransCanada to re-apply. He justified that decision by saying Congress had short-circuited the review process and the administration could not approved it without having fully considered all the facts.
In doing so, the President delayed making a final decision on the politically fraught issue until after the 2012 election.
Last summer, Republican leader again highlighted delays in the Keystone XL decision to lambast the Democratic president over a poor job-creation record. In response, Mr. Obama told The New York Times that KXL would create few jobs – "a blip relative to the need." It was a comment that was widely interpreted as attacking one of the key arguments for the project's approval, but needed to be seen in the context of partisan rhetoric from Washington.
In the midst of this bitter political debate, the Harper government has often made common cause with Mr. Obama's fiercest critics.
The Harper government has not been shy about courting Republican leaders and the Obama administration's critics in the business community as it seeks support for Keystone XL in Washington. In a recent trip to D.C., Foreign Minister John Baird met with Lisa Murkowski, one of the most influential Republicans in the Senate on energy issues, and then delivered a speech at the Chamber of Commerce, an ardent supporter of the pipeline and harsh critic of the administration's energy policies.
Nor has Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it any easier for President Obama to face down environmental critics of the pipeline plan. Despite urgings from the former U.S. ambassador in Ottawa for progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the oil sands, Ottawa has delayed its long-promised plan to impose emission regulations.
If Keystone XL does get approved, it is as much in spite of Ottawa's efforts as due to them.
Shawn McCarthy covers energy from Ottawa.