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The Keystone XL pipeline under construction in North Dakota. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and Alberta Premier Alison Redford have aggressively lobbied U.S. politicians ahead of the Obama administration’s decision, likely this summer, whether to approve the $5.3-billion TransCanada Corp. project.Reuters

Why won't the United States approve the Keystone XL pipeline? It's all because of one man, U.S. President Barack Obama, according to Canada's Natural Resources Minister, Greg Rickford.

When he was asked about U.S. opposition, Mr. Rickford laid it at Mr. Obama's feet. "I think importantly, it's not Americans. It seems to be more the President himself," Mr. Rickford said on CTV's Question Period on Sunday.

It was a telling summary of the Conservative government's approach to the politics of pipelines.

Once again, the Conservative government has expressed the view that everyone loves Keystone XL, that no-brainer project, except that guy Obama. That's what this government has been doing for years.

So, how's that approach been working for them?

What a shock! Siding with the Republicans against a Democratic president in a sharp, elbows-up lobby aimed at making him take blame didn't succeed in making Mr. Obama approve it.

For some reason, this government, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have moaned and groaned about the U.S. President playing politics with Keystone XL. But this is politics. That's what everyone in the Conservative government, from Mr. Harper to Mr. Rickford, does for a living. They've just done it badly.

By now, it's almost certainly too late to get Mr. Obama to ever approve this pipeline, so in that sense maybe Mr. Rickford's statements don't matter. But it's the kind of misreading of U.S. politics that turned setbacks into huge obstacles.

Maybe – but just maybe – Congressional Republicans will succeed in foisting the pipeline upon a lame-duck president in 2015. But it's more than possible that attention will turn elsewhere, that approval of the pipeline will be a less compelling political issue now that there's a global oil glut. And politics aren't about to disappear in the U.S. It would be good to be realistic about what happened.

For starters, it's not just Mr. Obama who is against the Keystone XL pipeline. That's the problem. He didn't just wake up one day and decide Canadian pipelines made him grumpy.

There was a constituency in the United States, mostly in the Democratic Party, that wanted action on climate change. While Mr. Obama couldn't get any kind of real climate legislation through Congress, they were against approval of a pipeline that they labelled as a conduit for "dirty oil." They started to make Keystone a symbol for climate change.

Instead of labouring to turn back that tide, the Canadian government decided to push harder on the idea that the U.S. was going to need Canadian oil, anyway. They sided with the Republicans, who handed Mr. Obama an ultimatum before the last presidential election, aimed at forcing him to decide yes or no. He said no, sent the pipeline approval back to square one, and got re-elected.

In the meantime the Canadian government had missed the importance of local Nebraska opposition, and that an energy revolution in the U.S. was making Canadian oil less crucial. The U.S. Ambassador publicly suggested, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, that Canadian environmental action might be helpful in selling Keystone to American constituencies but Mr. Harper decided against that.

The PM called Keystone a no-brainer, which fed Republican talking points but didn't make Mr. Obama view the project more kindly. The President opposed it more and more bluntly.

Instead of trying to isolate the anti-Keystone lobby from the mainstream middle of the Democrats, the Canadian strategy was to get Republicans and the conservative wing of the Democrats to force Mr. Obama to approve Keystone XL. It failed.

The idea that the U.S. needs Canada's oil and Ottawa would make it too painful for Mr. Obama to delay turned out to be a mistake. But the politics are still there. Perhaps a Republican president will be elected – and that hope explains the love Mr. Harper's given to potential candidates like Chris Christie. Hillary Clinton is supposed to be more pipeline-friendly. But if it's a world of $60 oil, it might not be a top issue in the primaries, or the 2016 election. There will still be politics next year.

Keystone's already been delayed six years. Mr. Harper's government should recognize it wasn't just Mr. Obama's politics, but the way they botched theirs.