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TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

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Danielle Droitsch, is hardly a household name in either Canada or the United States, but as director of the Canada Project at the National Resources Defense Council, she plays a key role in the unfolding and bitterly contentious debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. A self-described policy wonk, Ms. Droitsch has two decades of environmental advocacy on both sides of the border and family in both countries. She reflected this week on the environmental stakes and the political forces at play in the long-delayed decision on the pipeline that would carry Alberta oil to Texan refineries.

Why has a pipeline – Keystone XL – become such an iconic issue in the overall climate-change/greenhouse-gas policy debate?

People are starting to be extremely concerned after seeing the impacts of catastrophic climate change in their daily lives and are feeling the need to address those issues. It turns out that Canada's tar sands are some of the most carbon-intensive oil on earth. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a very clear example of the direction we don't need to go in.

Is Keystone XL just an easy target for environmental activists or is the development of Alberta's reserves really a major factor in the climate change problem?

There's no doubt that Keystone is a single decision facing the Obama administration that will set a course going forward. I would also note that many Canadians aren't aware of the big campaign about coal-fired coal plants currently going on in the U.S. so while Keystone is clearly a lightning rod for climate activists but it isn't our only campaign.

When you first started working on the Keystone XL campaign did you expect that in the fall of 2013 there still would be no decision?

I am surprised. I'm really pleased it has generated so much discussion about tar sands development and expansion; about whether the U.S. should be helping to expand this sort of energy. Remember, it was the Republicans who [contributed to the delay] by making Keystone a political issue. It didn't really hit the headlines until the Republicans made it an issue in December 2012.

Is that a good thing for those opposed to Keystone that it is such a political issue and it will end up being decided by a president with keen political antennae but no more elections to fight?

It's both good and bad. Good because it has focused attention to the growth of the tar sands industry and the U.S. contribution to making that happen. That's a much-needed conversation in the United States. We have a direct impact on whether [Alberta's reserves] are developed or left in the ground. However, without all of the national attention, the Obama administration could have rejected Keystone [some time ago] and we would have seen that as a good outcome.

The Canadian government has tried to cast the Keystone decision as 'pro' or 'anti' Canada. Does that have much impact in the United States or is that something the Harper government is saying for Canadian domestic consumption?

I don't think a rejection or even an approval of Keystone XL will fundamentally change the relationship between the U.S. and Canada. We have had difficult conversations in the past, we will have difficult conversations in the future. We are having a difficult conversation that needs to happen. This is an example of the Harper Administration is making a political argument it thinks will appeal to Canadian but I hope Canadians don't buy into that. Americans don't view Keystone XL as a fundamental issue for the future of the [Canada-U.S.] relationship.

What's the role of the NRDC in the Keystone debate?

NRDC has been engaged in the tar sands issue long before Keystone. We have millions of members, … [and] we are considered to be leaders in the campaign. We take the broad view of looking at everything from pipeline safety to climate change to health. As for me, I was working for a water organization [in 2007] in Alberta and led a canoe trip down the Athabasca River when I realized this was a really big issue and could not be addressed by Albertans alone. I came to Washington, D.C., because I know that if we are going to change what happens in Alberta it is the United States that will help set that course.

When do you expect President Obama to finally make a decision on Keystone XL?

It's a moving target. I no longer say "this year."

Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.