Environment Energy

Why Canada’s Trudeau is Trump's ally on Keystone XL

Surfacing models of thought

The pipeline might be symbolically potent in the US, a linchpin in national climate policy. But the Canadian Prime Minister sees a way to support Keystone while still pushing climate goals forward.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets the press before going into the Liberal cabinet retreat in Calgary, Alberta, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017.
Todd Korol/The Canadian Press/AP
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President Trump may have found a reluctant ally in the battle for Keystone XL in an unlikely place: liberal Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Prime Minister Trudeau reiterated his support for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines in two separate phone calls with Mr. Trump this week, telling reporters that the controversial project could be approved without ceding his country's newfound status as the driver of North American climate policy.

Mr. Trudeau’s longstanding support of the pipeline might surprise casual followers of Canadian politics, especially in the United States, where he tends to be linked with the style and policies of former President Obama. Just last year, “climate change’s new dynamic duo” hashed out a joint commitment to expand protected zones and cut back on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.

But the Keystone XL doesn’t have the same symbolic force in Canada as it does in the US, where national climate policy is at a crossroads. And some indigenous groups in Canada control the extraction of petroleum reserves on their territory, the BBC noted in December, making energy issues less galvanizing for First Nation activism.

Trudeau’s climate agenda is still full of aggressive items: In October, for instance, he directed provinces to figure out carbon pricing schemes of at least $10 per tonne, to go into effect in 2018, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. With local and provincial governments moving ahead on their own legislation and broad support among the Canadian public for climate action, Trudeau’s zigzag may be one image of a path forward.

For some advocates, it’s a path that will further elevate Canada’s renown as the ideological alternative to a Trump-led US. 

“We’re the US’s best friend,” says Jose Etcheverry, a co-chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative at York University, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “But at the same time, we have a responsibility to be the designated driver in North America. Canada has to become the narrative of the solution.”

For the past eight years, the US had that role, but Trump's pledge to pull out of the Paris Agreement and scale back "out of control" environmental regulations signal his determination to chart a radically different course.

Trudeau’s statements on Tuesday came the same day that Trump signed a series of executive directives reviving the Keystone XL and expediting the environmental-review process for the pipeline and other infrastructure projects deemed high priorities. TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder, says it will reapply for a presidential permit, according to the Associated Press.

In the driver's seat of Canada's oil-related energy dealings is the government of Alberta province, led by progressives who pushed through a carbon tax that went into effect on Jan. 1 – yet who are also conditioning their support for Trudeau’s tough carbon pricing scheme on whether pipelines get approved to whisk the province's oil to market.

Of the three pipelines sought by provincial Premier Rachel Notley, the Keystone is the lowest priority, since the other two would be purely Canadian-run. Her own approval of Trump's actions was measured, noting Trump's avowal to renegotiate the terms of the pipeline in saying she would "continue to monitor this very closely," CBC reported.

For the province, though, the 830,000 daily barrels of crude oil that could be pumped out of Alberta's tar sands by the pipeline represent a key part of its long-term development plans. And Trudeau, who was heckled at a Tuesday town hall forum in Calgary for earlier suggesting that oil sands extraction should be “phased out,” may be trying to assure Alberta residents that he has no intention of clamping down on an industry struggling with low prices.

“The Government of Canada has little choice but to support the revival of the pipeline, with forthcoming assurances that they will respect Indigenous rights and insist on the highest environmental and spill control standards,” writes Ken Coates, the Canada research chair in regional innovation at the University of Saskatchewan’s school of public policy, in an email to the Monitor. “For Western Canada, this is an important economic boost.”

Elsewhere, regional legislation is accelerating change at the federal level, says Dr. Etcheverry. Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec have instituted carbon taxes in recent years, and the cities of Vancouver and Victoria – and even the rural community of Oxford County, due partly to Etcheverry’s efforts – have adopted official plans to become 100 percent clean-energy powered by 2050.

“That’s extremely important from a paradigm shift perspective,” he says.