Harper proposes Keystone climate plan

After months of silence from the U.S. government regarding its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, it was reported recently that a letter was sent from the prime minister’s office to the White House stating that Canada would be willing to work with the U.S. to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector” in order to gain U.S. approval for the project.
The Keystone XL pipeline is a proposed addition to the already existing Keystone pipeline network. There are currently two pipelines leaving from Steele City, Nebraska — one heading to Illinois, and the other to the gulf coast of Texas. The Keystone XL line would run 1,897 kilometres from Hardisty, Alberta, to Steele City. Canadian regulators approved it in 2010, and the project is currently awaiting approval from the U.S. State Department.

The construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has been a contentious issue since its proposal in 2008. Controversy over this issue is just one instance of a dichotomy that has been forming around the world in recent years, pitting environmental concerns against economic priorities. Oil pipelines have come to symbolize a greater struggle against big oil companies in a petrochemical-driven economy.

Supporters of Keystone generally argue that the project will create jobs in Canada and the U.S. and promote tar sands oil as a better choice compared to oil from potentially hostile OPEC countries. The Harper government has invested millions of dollars into promoting “ethical oil” in the “Go With Canada” campaign. A spokesperson from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was quoted saying that Keystone “is not about whether the U.S. should use oil. It is about where that oil comes from. And the responsible choice is Canada.”

Opponents of the pipeline are concerned that Canada will fail to meet carbon emission reduction targets if it is built. After withdrawing from Kyoto, Canada signed the Copenhagen Accord, pledging to decrease its fossil fuel emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. Operating Keystone XL at full capacity would support an increase of 36 per cent in tar sands extraction, the most carbon-intensive form of oil production currently in practice. The resulting increase in emissions would make it impossible for Canada to meet its Copenhagen targets, according to Nathan Lemphers, a policy analyst formerly with the Pembina Institute.

As for the claim that Keystone will create new jobs, a study from Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute concluded that there will be just over 100 permanent jobs created by the pipeline. According to testimony presented by economist Robert Pollin before the House Committee on Education and Labor, the oil industry generates, per dollar invested, roughly one-quarter of the number of jobs created by green infrastructure projects.

Currently, it is unclear where President Obama stands with regard to the pipeline. He has kept his position private and made only a brief and equivocal statement on the issue.

“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,” Obama said.

The prime minister’s letter to President Obama suggests that Harper, who once referred to the construction of Keystone XL as “a no brainer,” is moderating his position on the issue and could be preparing to make concessions. Until then, Keystone supporters and detractors remain embroiled in conflict between the desire for more jobs and the cessation of environmentally risky petrochemical production.