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Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, on his March, 2013, trip to the U.S.

Peter Foley/Bloomberg

Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair is not, as far as anyone can understand, opposed to oil sands development. Nor is he opposed to pipelines moving Alberta bitumen. Nor, he says, is he trying to convince U.S. President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, magnanimously leaving the decision "up to Americans." Yet when he was in Washington, D.C., last week, the New Democrat created precisely the opposite impression on all these points. Mr. Mulcair's performance was termed "ridiculous and unhelpful" by Alberta Premier Alison Redford on Monday. In fact, it's just baffling.

At the very time he was saying Keystone XL should be left to the Americans, Mr. Mulcair was expressing agreement with a New York Times editorial's opposition to the pipeline, as well as expressing concerns that it would cost 40,000 Canadian jobs. He also appears to have left senior U.S. Democrat Nancy Pelosi under the misapprehension that Canadians are opposed to pipelines. "Canadians don't want the pipeline in their own country," she said after a meeting with Mr. Mulcair. That is a tenuous claim, given that the country is criss-crossed by pipelines and even Mr. Mulcair seems to like the idea of a west-east pipeline.

It has been suggested there may be a political advantage for Mr. Mulcair to be opaque on the oil sands and Keystone XL. The New Democrats draw support from environmentalists and from labour. Even though a U.S. State Department report argues there are no major environmental concerns with Keystone XL, and that it would not impact oil sands development or U.S. energy consumption, environmentalists in this country generally don't like the oil sands or pipelines. Mr. Mulcair's problem is that labour generally likes both, which makes sense, since they are major employers. So if incoherence was the strategy, then Mr. Mulcair's Washington trip was a success.

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What is clear is that with the opposition of the likes of Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who has declared, through a spokesman, that the project to transport Alberta oil to Texas refineries on the Gulf Coast is "the defining issue in the climate change fight of our times," self-inflicted wounds such as those delivered by Mr. Mulcair are unwelcome.

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