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Canada's ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Gary Doer, the Canadian ambassador to the United States, was right to respond as he did to President Barack Obama's comments on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in the New York Times on Sunday.

Mr. Obama observed that only about 2,000 jobs would result directly from the construction of the pipeline: "a blip relative to" the size of the American economy. The Republicans in Congress may be emphasizing the creation of jobs, but this debate is a distraction that misses the main point.

Mr. Doer emphasized the much more important argument in favour of an increase of pipeline capacity. There is a major economic benefit to both countries in relieving the pressure on North American railways to provide an increasing proportion of oil and gas shipments.

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The horrific railway disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Que., is an extreme case, in which errors were evidently made , with tragic and catastrophic results. Nonetheless, it can fairly be characterized as one of the many symptoms of the larger pattern of a shortage of pipeline capacity.

Pipelines are of course imperfect, but safer (and less expensive) than railways, as carriers of oil and gas.

In March, the State Department provisionally concluded that Keystone would probably not have a substantial environment impact, and more particularly would "not significantly exacerbate carbon pollution." The State Department has also recognized that Canadian companies would continue to export crude oil from the oil sands, by way of a number of routes, whether or not Keystone is built.

Nonetheless, the Canadian government should be concerned that Mr. Obama may be increasingly militant on the environment in his second term, as part of the legacy he hopes to leave. In the same interview, he said: "There is no doubt that Canada at the source in those tar sands could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release." Consequently, Canada needs to make a convincing case that it is as serious as the United States about its environmental and climate-change policies.

There are alternatives to the Keystone route, but it is conveniently direct. The federal government should persist in demonstrating its mutual benefits for the United States and Canada.

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