Symbolically, the battle around the Keystone XL pipeline has become a defining moment in politics.
In the U.S., the proposed pipeline, which would bring bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, now represents the entire war over climate change.
In Canada, it has come to signify Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s strangely passive-aggressive approach to this country’s most important ally.
Yet in both countries, the reality of Keystone is not that important.
Symbols first. For U.S. President Barack Obama, whose approval is essential for the project, Keystone is woven into his search for an environmental legacy.
To win that legacy, Obama must satisfy environmentalists. And to the American environmental movement, Keystone has come to represent everything that is wrong with the world’s approach to climate change.
Conversely, for Obama’s Republican opponents (and some Democrats), the pipeline has become a must-do project.
To give way on Keystone, they argue, is to surrender to limousine liberals and shifty foreigners who would weaken America.
“This is America’s hour to become energy independent,” Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a key pro-pipeline Democrat facing a run-off election in her home state, said Tuesday. “We don’t have to kowtow to Russia.” (In fact, the U.S. imports only about 4 per cent of its crude from Russia.)
Some of the same symbols are at play in Canada. Here, as in the U.S., Keystone critics are derided as extremists.
Opposition to the pipeline is just another “effort by extreme environmentalists” to stop what is a necessary project, former Alberta energy minister Ron Liepert told CBC Radio this week.
Harper, meanwhile, has firmly nailed his colours to the Keystone mast, accusing Obama of playing politics with the pipeline and saying that Ottawa won’t “take no for an answer.”
For a Canadian prime minister, this is unusually provocative language. Obama may not appreciate it. Certainly, he let some of his frustrations show last week when he dismissed Keystone as a scheme cooked up by Canadians that offers little to the U.S.
“Understand what this project is,” Obama told reporters. “It is providing the ability of Canada to pump their oil, send it through our land down to the Gulf where it will be sold everywhere else.”
While not entirely accurate in this, Obama was getting close to the mundane reality of Keystone: When the rhetoric is stripped away, it does not matter that much.
This particular pipeline will not bring the U.S. significantly closer to what proponents call energy independence.
The U.S. already imports 2.5 million barrels of Canadian crude oil every day. Even without Keystone, Alberta bitumen will continue to power American cars,
America’s energy future, however, lies not in Alberta but in North Dakota. Domestic U.S. shale oil and gas production is growing handsomely. The Paris-based International Energy Agency predicts that the U.S. will be a net oil exporter by 2020.
For Canada, a pipeline matters more. Alberta bitumen producers face bottlenecks getting their heavy oil to markets. A pipeline to the coast would give them higher profits.
But the pipeline need not be Keystone and the coast need not be on the Gulf of Mexico. The truth is that even if Keystone fails, a pipeline from the tar sands to tidewater will be built. The Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats disagree on many things. But all agree that the so-called Energy East pipeline — from Alberta to New Brunswick — should go ahead.
Similarly, a world with no Keystone will not much affect carbon emissions. As long as there is some method of getting Alberta heavy crude to markets — by train, truck or pipeline — tarsands production will go on.
Only two developments would change that. One would be a decision by government to significantly limit Alberta’s carbon emissions. (Don’t hold your breath.)
The other would be a collapse in world oil prices so severe that bitumen is no longer profitable to exploit.
In short, a declining Chinese economy may dramatically affect the tarsands, carbon emissions and Canada’s contribution to climate change. The Keystone pipeline — no matter what happens to it — won’t.