On Keystone, Harper has no one to blame but himself

Apr 28, 2014

Two weeks ago, we learned that President Barack Obama called Prime Minister Stephen Harper to inform him of his decision to delay indefinitely the approval of the Keystone pipeline.

In an article Bloomberg ran this week describing the fallout of the call, the prime minister was described as quite “irritated” by the news. “Harper, according to many of his advisers, thinks of Obama as a kind of frustrator-in-chief” the article stated.

That’s quite rich. And Harper will have a hard time convincing anyone that this announcement came as any sort of surprise to him.

Back in November 2008, President-elect Obama issued a statement: “Few challenges facing America — and the world — are more urgent than combating climate change. Many of you are working to confront this challenge … but too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office.”

In all six of his State of the Union addresses, the president has mentioned combatting climate change as an absolute priority of his presidency. In a speech he gave at Georgetown University in 2013, he stated unequivocally: “A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. And I want America to build that engine. I want America to build that future — right here in the United States of America. That’s our task …

“Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant”.

Not exactly ambiguous.

So what did the Harper government do to address some of the president’s concerns? Knowing the oilsands were a tough sale for the Obama administration because of their obvious environmental footprint, what did the Harper government offer to make Keystone acceptable?

Not much. The Harper government came to the table with no real substantive offering. After eight years in office, Harper still hasn’t put forward meaningful greenhouse gas emission regulations or policies that would make Canada a world leader in research, clean technologies and energy innovation. Instead, his government bought massive ads in D.C. subway stations to argue Canada is a stable, friendly country that has a lot of oil to sell.

Prime Minister Harper’s approach to selling the Obama administration on Keystone amounts to this: We have a lot of oil, so do yourself a favour and take it. And if you don’t take ours, you’ll be stuck with Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Russia and a lot of unstable countries.

So far, the pitch hasn’t penetrated the U.S. State Department. It also ignores the fact that the United States is now producing more clean-burning natural gas than any other country. It takes little ingenuity to conclude that the U.S. will want to reinforce that enviable position because of the positive effects it will have on reducing carbon emissions.

The PM is not happy with President Obama and he has decided to make his displeasure known to the world. In doing so, he is weakening the most important diplomatic relationship Canada has.

Jim Prentice — once an influential member of Harper’s government and now a serious contender to become the next premier of Alberta — gave a speech in Ottawa in February arguing Canada should basically throw in the towel on Keystone and wait for a new president to take office. It was a stunning statement. Not only will President Obama be in office until 2016, he could end up being replaced by Hillary Clinton. How can we be certain another Democratic president would take a fundamentally different approach?

Like Canada, the United States still has some serious work to do to tackle climate change in a meaningful way. But under President Obama’s watch, it has reduced its GHG emissions, put forward many EPA regulations and is soon to be considered more or less independent on the energy front. China, the elephant in the room, is moving much faster than most people assume on renewables and stands to become much less dependent on coal.

The world is slowly but surely moving to a low-carbon economy. The path is clear.

What Canada does next to show the world we’re serious about climate change will have a great impact on our capacity to export natural resources, and on our future economic success. President Obama didn’t owe us a free pass. He was right not to give us one.

This article was first published on iPolitics.com.

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