He may be the wise man of investing, but Warren Buffett is wrong about Canada and the pipeline.
The billionaire investor said this week that by delaying an approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, U.S. President Barack Obama is essentially thumbing his nose at Canada.
But he is not. The President is thumbing his nose at a pipeline and political foes in the U.S. House and Senate who keep trying to pressure him into okaying it.
Unfortunately, for Mr. Buffett and many others, the Keystone XL pipeline has become synonymous with Canada, due in no small measure to federal and provincial diplomatic efforts and taxpayer dollars that have gone into pushing it in Washington for the past six-plus years. This is not a good thing.
"I think that we have an enormous interest in working with Canada, as they have in working with us," the Berkshire Hathaway Inc. chief executive said in an interview with CNBC.
That part, of course, is absolutely correct. I question the next part.
"That oil is going to get sold. If we make it more difficult for them, who knows how they'll feel about making things more difficult for us some day."
Mr. Buffett is a significant investor in Suncor Energy Inc., Canada's largest oil sands producer and a beneficiary of any new pipeline through the U.S. heartland. That aside, it's easy for him to get the impression that TransCanada Corp.'s oil pipeline proposal is the most important issue facing the two countries. This is even as U.S. oil imports from Canada keep climbing without a Keystone XL pipeline in the ground.
However, it is just an outsized irritant for the oil industry, Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well as the Alberta government.
But for a private interest's multibillion-dollar business proposal to irreparably damage relations between two of the closest allies and trading partners would be not just a major diplomatic stumble, it would be completely unnecessary.
There are possible ways to make it easier for the President to eventually find the project more palatable. Actually, amid a flurry of Keystone XL-related developments over the past week, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote that it could actually be one carrot for an aggressive bilateral carbon-reduction deal.
Mr. Obama has often cited climate change as being one of the biggest problems and in his final years as U.S. leader has served notice he wants to leave a legacy in that arena. Mr. Harper has repeatedly delayed tougher pollution rules on the Canadian energy sector, fearing any moves on that front that the industry says would crimp its competitiveness.
So, it is a sensible path to explore, as the Keystone XL pipeline could become less of the singular wedge issue it's become.
The President has taken to repeating some fallacies about the project's real aims recently, notably the one that says the Canadian oil that would flow through the pipe would be headed straight for export from the Gulf Coast.
A big part of the rationale for Keystone XL is to expose Canadian crude oil to the Gulf Coast refining market as a way to reduce the pricing discount it gets slapped with. It is also to allow U.S. refiners to secure a major new supply of heavy oil as production in Mexico and Venezuela dwindles. TransCanada and others have been quick to criticize Mr. Obama for his messaging.
In one positive sign for the company and Canadian oil industry, Mr. Obama said on Monday that he has no intention of letting the approval process slide past the end of his presidency. In an interview with Reuters, he said he would make the decision in "weeks or months."
Yes, it's about time for a yes or a no, so that everyone in both countries can turn the page on an industrial and environmental decision process that morphed into a political and diplomatic fracas.
It would help Canadian leaders rediscover and promote other aspects of their society to its most important neighbour so that Mr. Buffett and others will see that our country is not Keystone XL.