So far, U.S. President Barack Obama’s attempts at nuance on the Keystone XL pipeline issue have impressed no one: not the oil industry, not environmentalists and certainly not Canadians. In January, Obama rejected the proposed 2,673-kilometre pipeline between Alberta’s oilsands and the Gulf of Mexico, saying the 60-day approval deadline set by Congress didn’t allow enough time to review the project. Republican opponents quickly shot back that Obama was effectively killing jobs and hiking energy prices, potent accusations heading into a presidential election focused on the economy. So Obama on March 22 engaged in a bit of political puffery at a storage yard owned by Transcanada, the Edmonton-based company behind Keystone. Standing in front of stacks of pale green pipe, Obama called for expedited construction of the southern portion of the pipeline, between Oklahoma and Texas. The only reason he’d denied the earlier permit application was Congress’s too fast timetable, he said. “Anybody who suggests we’re somehow suppressing domestic oil production isn’t paying attention. They are not paying attention,” he said. The southern segment will be built and relieve pressure on existing infrastructure; the northern segment will wait to ensure Republican tricks don’t compromise the regulatory process. I’m not anti-pipeline, he essentially said, I’m just anti-political games.
The message would have seemed more credible if the Obama administration itself hadn’t previously tried to punt any decision on Keystone XL until after the presidential election. Obama positioned himself as the purveyor of a balanced approach to energy issues. But it didn’t work. Instead, he suffered a not-unexpected consequence of standing in the middle of the road—he got run over. Everyone from Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney to high-profile environmentalist Bill McGibben accused Obama of engaging in the same crass politicking he so frequently decries. Joe Oliver, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister, said the decision was encouraging, but said it didn’t do much to help Canada. Perhaps tellingly, Oliver seemed more keen to trumpet Canada’s ef forts to sell its resources to Asia than to offer any kind words for Obama.
At this point, it is undeniable that the absurdities of American electoral politics has transformed the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline from a serious policy discussion into a forum for name-calling and cheap photo-ops. But the brinkmanship has achieved one useful purpose. Both the Democrats and Republicans are eager to demonstrate their support for expanded oil production. The debate no longer appears to be “Keystone: yes or no?” but “Keystone: when and how?” As Obama posed, literally, with a piece of the pipeline, the competition of the full project seemed like an eventual inevitability.
And that’s good news. It’s good news because the pipeline will be completed after rigorous scrutiny that addresses many of the concerns of its critics. It’s good news for the American economy because it will, indeed, bring jobs and another source of oil. And it’s good news for Canada. While Oliver and the federal government play coy and bat their eyelashes at Asia, the United States remains the closest, easiest and most appealing market for Canadian oil. The sooner practicality trumps politics, the better.