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Did Alison Redford just fail to make the economic case for the Keystone?

Premier missed an opportunity.

Alison Redford speaks to the Brookings Institution, Tuesday April 9, 2012. (Creative Commons/Premier of Alberta)

Alison Redford speaks to the Brookings Institution, Tuesday April 9, 2012. (Creative Commons/Premier of Alberta)

Alison Redford came to Washington D.C. with exactly the right idea: she needed to talk up Alberta’s record on climate change. “The stark choice that Keystone’s opponents have put at the heart of the debate is an illusion,” she said today speaking at the Brookings Institution, adding: “they say that you either stand against the oilsands or you write off the environment.” She hit the nail on the head. That is exactly the choice the White House does not want to be seen to be making.

Admittedly, there is some evidence that, if push comes to shove, President Barack Obama might still prefer to appear to choose the economy. Last week, he was reportedly at pains to explain to wealthy Democratic donors in San Francisco that when you don’t have a job, or you’re struggling to get by with the one you have, “you may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your number one concern.” And a recent Gallup poll indicates that a majority of Americans still consider the economy more important than the environment in cases where the two seem to be irreconcilable. But the president has also pledged to “respond to the threat of climate change” in his second term and would rather not be seen as eating his words by approving Keystone.

What might Alison Redford do to alleviate his pain? Argue that there really isn’t an insolvable contradiction between environmental and economic priorities when it comes to Canada’s pipeline.

She did an admirable job of that. Did her American audience know that Alberta has some of the most progressive climate and environmental regulations in the world? That it put a price on carbon? The answer appeared to be “no,” her Brookings hosts seemed to say. Well, Redford was there to let everyone know. “We have nothing to hide,” she said, “and we’ll talk about our facts.” What followed was a series of statistics and dollar figures showcasing Alberta’s record on climate change and environmental protection. There was mention of carbon capture and sequestration projects; of the fact that greenhouse gases from the Alberta energy industry have fallen by 29 per cent per barrel since 1990 and that 80 per cent of oilsand reserves are only accessible through in situ extraction methods, which do not use the infamous tailing ponds Keystone opponents love to focus on.

The numbers omitted a few important details: she said, for example, that the oilsands account for only 7% of Canada’s emissions, but did not mention what that percentage would be in 10 years. Verbal data dumps, though, are almost always meant to overwhelm the audience with facts they can’t quite check on the spot, and Redford’s wasn’t any more dishonest than most — let alone those of some of the Keystone opponents. Besides, anything most people would probably get out of her speech is that Alberta is doing something about emissions, which is entirely accurate.

Once the climate stumbling block was cleared, Redford turned to the economy. Surprisingly, that’s where she wavered. She mentioned that, despite the shale-oil boom, the U.S. would continue to need energy imports “for a very long time.” But the International Energy Agency predicted America will be a net oil exporter by 2030. She also mentioned Keystone would create 75,000 American jobs, even though the latest State Department environmental assessment of the pipeline said it would add a grand total of 35 permanent jobs. When someone from the audience quoted the State’s figure, she fumbled something about construction jobs (which would be temporary). When asked about why linking the oilsands to the Gulf of Mexico would benefit the U.S. if most of Canada’s oil is then exported, she talked about the economic interests of Texas refiners and went on a long digression about the importance of Canada-U.S. economic integration and of “not doing things in isolation.”

There was a simple answer to the economic question: Keystone is the fastest and easiest way to bring Alberta’s oil to market, which will in turn lower the price of oil by about a dollar per barrel for every American — regardless of where the stuff is ultimately sold. Redford did not make that argument, perhaps because she thought that 75,000 jobs still sounds better than a marginal decrease in the price of gasoline. Or maybe she was concerned that mentioning lower prices for carbon fossil fuels would undermine her arguments on the environment.

Regardless, the end result was that, while she might have won Americans over on climate, she might have lost them on the economy.

Erica Alini is a California-based reporter and a regular contributor to CanadianBusiness.com, where she covers the U.S. economy. Follow her on Twitter: @ealini.