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The Keystone veto shows environmental concerns can no longer be ignored

Obama's rejection of the pipeline is a wake-up call for Canada's oil patch

Protester holding sign reading "No KXL Pipeline"

A member of the The Cowboy and Indian Alliance protesting Keystone XL in Washington, D.C., in April 2014 (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty)

A subtle semantic shift was evident in Alberta Premier Jim Prentice’s response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s vetoing the Keystone XL pipeline bill on Tuesday. As he has in other recent pronouncements, Prentice spoke of his province’s commitment to “responsible” energy development. Not to be found in his statement was “sustainable,” a word previous premiers used without reservation, and which still litters the Alberta government’s various websites.

This is a welcome development. It signals that Prentice, at least, gets it: Canada’s oil patch can no longer dismiss the environmental movement. It’s no longer possible to treat environmental issues like a public relations or engineering problem, to be worked at around the edges. The effects of oilsands production on climate change must be confronted sooner or later—and given the increasing incidence of weird weather and coastal flooding, probably sooner.

Here was a two-term U.S. president responding not just to a core constituency, but a larger mushy middle of the population that intuitively knows greenhouse gas emissions need to be not only reduced but eliminated over a yet-to-be determined period. Sure, Canada’s oilsands have been unfairly and possibly unwisely targeted, considering their small impact on global emissions relative to Chinese and American coal-fired power plants.

But that’s not the point. Canadians, as much as anyone else, need to let go of a few fictions and develop a plan for winding down—even over a very long time—the use of fossil fuels.

One of those fictions, which emanated from Calgary’s office towers and government communications, is that of “sustainable” fossil fuel production. The use of that word not only undermines the user’s credibility in discussions of “energy literacy,” but shows a basic unfamiliarity with a dictionary. When you take an organic compound that has been locked inertly in the earth for hundreds of millions of years, chemically transform it, and release it into the atmosphere, you are doing something inherently unsustainable. Never mind whether the activity causes climate change or ocean acidification or how long the effects take to manifest—it’s unsustainable.

What Prentice appears to have grasped is that Alberta and its oil and gas industry need to start talking honestly about their role in a world transitioning to a post-carbon economy. That precludes being hell-bent on extracting and selling every last drop of oil, lump of coal and whiff of gas lying under our feet while we still can. It means being a responsible provider, for now, of a still necessary evil.

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