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A demonstrator holds up a sign during a march past the White House to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, February 17, 2013. The TransCanada Corp pipeline would link the oil sands of northern Alberta, the world's third largest crude resource, to refineries and ports in Texas. Environmentalists say approval of the pipeline will encourage more development in the oil sands, where extraction is carbon intensive, leading to greater greenhouse gas emissions.RICHARD CLEMENT/Reuters

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Consider Keystone XL in reverse. Not as a cost-effective way to funnel upwards of one million barrels of Canada oil sands crude daily to the massive refinery complexes in Texas, but as a daily northbound cash flow of roughly $100-million that would fund – in fact would likely spur – a tripling of production from the vast, mostly-untapped Alberta bitumen reserves.

Without a cheap route to market – and Keystone XL is by far the best route – the economics of oil sands expansion look iffy, according to some analysts.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford gave a hint of the scale of the dollars at stake this week when she was in Washington pitching the province's environmental record and warning that oil sands crude will find a route to market whether or not Keystone XL is rejected.

Ms. Redford also said that Alberta's coffers were $6-billion short this year as a result of the so-called bitumen bubble, the 30-per cent price discount oil sands suffer because producers can't cost-effectively get the thick, heavy, product to market. And that shortfall is just in the government's share of a far-smaller production level with Keystone XL in operation.

In such a scenario, nixing Keystone isn't about the worry over oil leaks near Midwestern aquifers or whether a neighbourhood in Mayflower, Arkansas was sullied by oil sands crude from another pipeline break, or even the objections of some ranchers in Texas. All of those anti-Keystone fights may be worth fighting but they are just part of a far larger battle.

In testimony this week to a Congressional energy and power sub-committee, Mark Jaccard, a professor of environmental economics at Simon Fraser University's School of Resource and Environmental Management, laid out a sweeping vision in which even the oil sands are only one small part of the effort to slow, and eventually end man-made global warning from greenhouse-gas emissions.

"In the short to medium term, the denial of Keystone XL will help to slow development of the oil sands," Mr. Jaccard said. In his prepared remarks, Prof. Jaccard, who served on the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change in the nineties, challenges the State Department conclusion that Alberta oil sands will find other, cost-effective, access to world markets and lays out a far-reaching approach.

But for Prof. Jaccard, the question to be answered about Keystone is "not what its incremental effect on emissions might be, but rather what its cumulative effect could be if used as a lever to influence other decisions affecting carbon pollution."

In a session sponsored Thursday by the NDRC, Mr. Jaccard said his purpose wasn't to set out political strategies, but anti-Keystone XL campaigners will find his economics dovetail neatly with the political campaign in the United States.

"Decisions about projects like Keystone XL are of little use unless they are leveraged to greater effect," Prof. Jaccard said. "In this case, the U.S. government should note that it cannot support oil sands expansion while the Canadian government is not making the effort necessary to achieve its 2020 emission reduction target."

On both sides of the border, there is a growing view that Mr. Obama may do something similar; conditional approval of Keystone on significantly greater performance by Canada to reduce emissions.

Alternatively, a clear rejection of Keystone XL – which is what opponents want – might deny oil sands producers the revenue infusion needed to expand, dooming the oil sands to marginal profitability and limited exploitation.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story indicated the Keystone pipeline might bring north $100-million a year. That figure is closer to $100-million a day. This version has been corrected.