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opinion

Even Stéphane Dion seemed taken aback by the hoots and hollers of civil servants gathered in Ottawa's Lester B. Pearson building on Friday to watch the new Foreign Affairs Minister react to President Barack Obama's decision to officially kill the Keystone XL pipeline.

The bureaucrats, who made no pretense of impartiality, might be given a one-time pass for the excessive enthusiasm with which they greeted their new boss. After nine years of Conservative foreign policy, it feels like spring in November for a foreign service dying to play honest broker again.

There was no joy in the oil patch, however, after watching Mr. Dion "defend" its interests in the face of Mr. Obama's political decision to nix Keystone. Rather than challenge the notion of Keystone as a fast track to climate calamity, the Foreign Affairs Minister seemed to have no problem with the President's characterization of Canadian energy as "dirtier crude oil."

"I'm not surprised [Mr. Obama used that term] because the EPA, the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency, told him that," Mr. Dion told reporters. "It's like if we had our own environmental assessment telling us something is dirty, it would certainly affect our decision."

Mr. Dion later told CTV's Power Play he did not think Mr. Obama's description was "accurate." But that comment was buried under such an avalanche of unqualified criticism of Canada's environmental performance that any foreign observer could only deem us a global pariah.

It is one thing to assert that Canada must do more to reduce its carbon emissions. It is quite another for our Foreign Affairs Minister to contribute to a false narrative that hurts this country. Besides, the U.S. State Department made no reference to the EPA's findings in recommending Keystone's rejection. That is probably because the EPA's assessment was already considered out of date when it was released early this year. It also conveniently ignored the fact that the alternative to Canadian oil for U.S. Gulf Coast refineries is heavy crude from Venezuela that has a comparable carbon footprint.

Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, who now reports to Mr. Dion, pointed this out in a February letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in which he slammed the "significant distortion and omission" that led the EPA to reach its conclusions. Not only did the EPA base its findings on 2005 data – neglecting the reduction in the carbon intensity of oil sands crude that has occurred since – it also failed to recognize that Alberta is the only foreign supplier of oil to the United States that has imposed a carbon tax on its own producers – one that is soon set to double and whose proceeds are invested in clean-energy technologies.

Canada was within its rights to strenuously object to Mr. Obama's decision, and to the tortured logic the President used to reach it. Instead, Mr. Obama got only meek "disappointment" from Mr. Dion and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the promise of a "fresh start" in Canada-U.S. relations.

"We need to have a fresh start and never more in the world will anybody question the fact that Canada has a strong environmental assessment, strong science, strong clean energy deployment … and then our products and goods will be welcome everywhere," Mr. Dion said.

It may suit Mr. Dion to play into the notion that the pipeline's rejection stemmed from Canada's perceived failure to take action on climate change or insufficiently robust environmental standards. For all we know, that's what the former Liberal leader who once proposed a national carbon tax believes. But it's not true and it is not in Canada's interest to allow the entire world to think so. Mr. Obama killed Keystone for political reasons outside Canada's control.

Remember, the Liberals claimed to support Keystone. If the Canadian government won't correct false impressions left by the U.S. President that damage our global reputation, then who will?

Former prime minister Stephen Harper's stubborn refusal to pay rhetorical heed to global warming – in spite of pledging to reduce Canada's emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 – allows the new Liberal government to score points on this file merely by sounding more earnest. Just tacking "and Climate Change" onto the title of the new Minister of Environment won it accolades as a trailblazer, even though Ontario and Quebec did it first.

The Liberals accused the Harper government of playing domestic politics with foreign policy. But on Keystone, at least, Mr. Dion has failed to raise the bar.