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opinion

The Keystone XL pipeline is dead! Long live the Keystone XL pipeline!

That U.S. President Barack Obama disliked the proposed pipeline to ship Alberta bitumen to the Gulf of Mexico has been apparent for a long time. If Mr. Obama had wanted to approve Keystone XL, he could have done so at many points along the curving road top. On Tuesday, his spokesman said Mr. Obama would veto any pro-Keystone bill passed by congressional Republicans before a Nebraska court ruling on Keystone due shortly. The spokesman insisted the veto threat was therefore a procedural issue, but the strong likelihood is that the President was signalling he would veto Keystone XL on substantive grounds, too.

A presidential veto in some cases kills a bill, but not necessarily in this case. The Republicans, if frustrated by a veto on a pro-Keystone measure, can affix such a measure to something Mr. Obama wants or must have, such as an omnibus budget bill, and dare him then to use his veto.

To paraphrase philosopher Yogi Berra, in the U.S. government, it ain't over till it's over, and even then it ain't over. So it will be with Keystone XL, the saga surrounding which already goes back some years and bids fair to continue to roil U.S. politics.

And to roil Canada-U.S. relations, at least at the level of relations between the Stephen Harper government and the Obama administration. The Harper government, boosters to the nth degree of the bitumen oil industry, elevated Keystone XL to the most important issue on the Canada-U.S. docket. At one point, in an especially maladroit remark, Mr. Harper declared support for Keystone XL a "no-brainer," a phrase not likely to have impressed the President.

The Harper government used every tool in the box to get a Yes from the Obama administration. It sent the Prime Minister and ministers to Washington and other U.S. cities, deployed Canada's diplomatic service to press the case, allied itself with Alberta and the bitumen industry to undertake publicity campaigns, and buttonholed any American of influence to argue the case for Keystone XL, to the point where American officials would cringe at the sight of yet another Canadian diplomat or politician seeking a chat.

The President's rejection of Keystone XL, even if later upended by Republican strategists, can only be interpreted as a slap in the face to Mr. Harper and to all those who, like him, lobbied the President so hard. The lobbying was so intense that Keystone XL on the Canadian side became a litmus test of the state of bilateral relations, an exaggeration of the project's importance that reflected very badly on the Harper government's approach.

Keystone had mighty supporters in the United States, and not just the Republican Party. The oil industry, among the most powerful in the country, favoured Keystone XL. So did important trade unions that saw jobs for members. So did the wider business lobbies. And polls showed majority support as a project that would create jobs and improve American energy security, Canada being seen as an unfailingly friendly source.

For environmentalists, however, Keystone became a cause célèbre in their battle against more greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Keystone became a kind of Rubicon for the President's bona fides as an environmentalist. And he, in turn, began his second term with public pronouncements about the urgency of combatting climate change, and increasingly saw that effort as a defining issue for his second term and, by extension, his entire presidency.

After all, Mr. Obama's health-care reform had been passed. It has now spread across the country, despite fierce Republican resistance. It will be a defining issue of his presidency.

With health-care done, and immigration reform blocked, climate change and environmental protection more generally began to look like an appropriate defining issue for his second term. When that reality began to take hold, Keystone's chances began to fade, since the project became less about the facts and figures of the file than about symbolism and politics.

Even if Keystone XL dies under the Obama presidency, there could be life in the old dog yet. Should Jeb Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee, become president, and should TransCanada still want Keystone XL done, the project will almost certainly proceed.

If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she has never been as environmentally committed as today's Secretary of State John Kerry or as Mr. Obama. Faced with a Republican Congress, she might not take the decision that Mr. Obama has now made.