Is the Keystone XL pipeline a diplomatic nightmare?

President Obama's possible approval of the Keystone XL pipeline is a tale of political calculation gone sadly wrong, King writes. Delaying the pipeline's review offended the country's principal trading partner and gave environmentalists time to mobilize against the Keystone XL pipeline, King adds. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
President Barack Obama arrives at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Okla. With the Keystone Xl pipeline, Obama finds himself between the swamp of his own political left and the rock of international relations, King writes.

What a mess President Obama makes as he tries to placate both sides of a dispute and comes out looking just inept.

The president’s possible approval of the 2,000-mile-long pipeline from the oil sands (previously known as the tar sands, and most correctly bitumen sands) of Alberta, Canada, to the refineries and shipping terminals of the U.S. Gulf Coast is a tale of political calculation gone sadly wrong. His clumsiness is not helped by a favorable environmental statement issued recently.

In January 2012, the president was expected to give his approval and that of the State Department to what is an international agreement, he punted. Concerned about stout opposition in his own administration, and particularly from his Environmental Protection Administration chief Lisa Jackson, Obama demurred and requested more studies.

This did two things: It antagonized the Canadian people, always sensitive to slights from the United States, and humiliated the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Joe Oliver, Canada's minister for natural resources, told me on the record just before Obama’s statement that he had had strong indications from the administration that the Keystone XL pipeline would be approved. In the event, he and the Canadian government were outraged and embarrassed. 

As though offending our principal trading partner and favorite neighbor was not enough, Obama gave the environmentalists time to mobilize -- a mobilization so complete that it resulted in a demonstration on the Mall in Washington immediately after the president’s second inauguration. (Related article: The US Looks on as Pakistan and Iran Inaugurate Gas Pipeline)

Not only did a broad front of environmentalists march against the pipeline but in the year since Obama kicked the can down the road, they extended and codified their objections not just to the pipeline, but also to the exploitation of the oil sands. Obama’s delay has allowed the environmental groups to declare a kind of non-governmental trade war against Canada.

Originally, the environmental movement and its supporters in the administration were concerned with the effects of the pipeline in Nebraska and the threat it would pose to rivers and aquifers in the state. While the company that wants to build the pipeline, TransCanada, has agreed to re-routing and Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman has signed off on the project, the environmentalists have downplayed the Nebraska issues and concentrated on the whole matter of the exploitation of the oil sands. The Natural Resources Defense Council has called oil-sands oil “the filthiest oil in the world.”

This is a mighty assault on the economy of Alberta and Canada, as 44 percent of Canada’s oil exports come from the oil sands and they are scheduled to keep rising. If it were of less economic consequence, the protests might find more sympathy north of the border than they do. Mining the sands is a monumental undertaking, disturbing enormous tracts of earth and employing trucks and mechanical shovels, which are the largest on the globe. The disturbance to the earth is considerable and worth noting.

Also worth noting are the vast quantities of natural gas and water used in the extraction and retorting of the sands. More greenhouse gases are released in the production of the oil than in regular oil fields; the oil sands extraction is calculated to be the largest contributor to greenhouse gases in Canada.

However, Canadians are sensitive to these issues and are offended by the idea that Canada is a backward country with no regard to the environment. Canada maintains that evolving technology is reducing the impact on the environment year after year. The oil sands are going to be developed no matter what. (Related article: China Set to Become the World’s Largest Oil Importer)

There is a pattern of escalation in environmental concerns about big projects. Nuclear power gives a fine historical perspective on this escalation. Back in the 1960s, the first concerns about nuclear power were on the thermal effluent into rivers and streams. This escalated into concern about radiation, then safety, then waste and finally a blanket indictment of the technology.

Bogdan Kipling, who has been writing about Canadian-U.S. relations from Washington for four decades, takes an apocalyptic view of the future U.S.-Canada relations if Obama wavers and does not approve the pipeline. In a recent column, he said that such an action would “decouple” the United States from Canada across a broad range of issues, social a as well as economic. “Such a decision would be sweet music to the ears of Canadian nationalists,” Kipling said.

Now Obama finds himself between the swamp of his own political left and the rock of international relations. It did not have to be like this.

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