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From pipelines to bridges, local politics trump national interests

Embracing the old adage that all politics is local, Barack Obama is putting the people of Nebraska front and centre in the bitter Keystone XL pipeline debate.

"Folks in Nebraska, like all across the country, aren't going to say to themselves, 'We'll take a few thousand jobs if it means our kids are potentially drinking water that would damage their health,'" the U.S. President said last week.

Mr. Obama is, of course, stating the obvious. No American would put the lives of children at risk for the sake of a few thousand jobs.

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Nebraska is a convenient diversion – another telling example of local politics trumping the national interest in cross-border infrastructure projects that are overwhelmingly positive for the Canadian and U.S. economies. A long delayed new bridge linking Windsor, Ont., and Detroit is another.

Mr. Obama made his latest remarks on the Keystone project to a reporter from television station KETV in Omaha, Neb. They came as the Nebraska legislature opened a special session last week to explore forcing TransCanada Corp. to reroute its $7-billion pipeline around a sensitive patch of grassland in the Ogallala Aquifer, a vital groundwater source for the U.S. Midwest.

By acknowledging the "folks of Nebraska," Mr. Obama is giving a tacit nod to local interests, and politics. And by implication, downplaying the "national interest" determination on the project that he's promised by year's end.

Going local obscures the bigger picture. The pipeline would cross a patch of Nebraska that's home to dozens of existing oil pipelines.

Yes, the Ogallala Aquifer is a vital source of groundwater. But it's hardly North America's Serengeti. There are already nearly 40,000 kilometres of oil pipelines crisscrossing the massive aquifer, including 2,000 kilometres in Nebraska alone. Some 24 billion barrels of oil have been pumped out of the ground in the area over the past century, with no evidence of health problems in children or anyone else.

U.S. authorities explored eight possible routes for the pipeline in recent years, ultimately opting for the current one because it would have the smallest environmental footprint.

In all, the proposed pipeline would traverse six states. Only in Nebraska have state leaders expressed objections about the project, which would reduce the dependence of U.S. refineries on crude from volatile suppliers in the Middle East and Venezuela.

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It's clearly Mr. Obama's responsibility to decide if the pipeline megaproject, which would carry Canadian oils sands crude to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, is in the national interest.

A challenge by the state of Nebraska could seriously complicate the Obama administration's decision-making. TransCanada officials say rerouting the pipeline now could inflate costs and delay the project by up to three years.

TransCanada's trials on the Keystone project are reminiscent of the plan to replace the aging and congested 81-year-old Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor. The project has been similarly tied up in local politics for much of the past five years even though it's a vital gateway for a quarter of all Canada-U.S. trade.

Factories across Ontario and Quebec and the U.S. Midwest are precariously dependent on truck shipments across this one privately owned span.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged in a recent interview that many people in his state see the plan for a new bridge as a "Detroit" issue, with few perceived benefits for the rest of the state, let alone the rest of the U.S.

Meanwhile, a proposed new rail tunnel, also linking Windsor and Detroit, is stalled as backers look for $200-billion from governments in both countries. The so-called Continental Rail Gateway would replace a 1909 tunnel that is too small for double-stacked freight cars. The existing tunnel carries $22-billion a year worth of trade.

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More than jobs and economic spinoffs are at stake here. The completion of these megaprojects is vital to keeping North America vibrant and productive in the face of rising offshore competition and a sluggish global economy. Canada has vast natural resources and complementary manufacturing capacity that the U.S. needs.

Sometimes it really is about the bigger picture.

Politics may be local. But economies are global.

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About the Author
National Business Correspondent

Barrie McKenna is correspondent and columnist in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. From 1997 until 2010, he covered Washington from The Globe's bureau in the U.S. capital. During his U.S. posting, he traveled widely, filing stories from more than 30 states. Mr. McKenna has also been a frequent visitor to Japan and South Korea on reporting assignments. More

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