Is Keystone XL Obama’s line in the sand? – by Jeffrey Simpson (Globe and Mail – February 9, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Here are President Barack Obama’s words from his second inaugural address: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Thence followed 10 sentences about climate change.

In Edmonton and Ottawa, where governments had grown confident that Mr. Obama, once re-elected, would give the green light to the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta’s bitumen oil deposits to the Gulf of Mexico, those sentences were at least worrisome, if not menacing.

Why did Mr. Obama do it? Climate change was scarcely raised in the election campaign. A Republican-controlled House of Representatives will block any cap-and-trade system for greenhouse-gas emissions, plus just about anything else to reduce emissions.

With so many other priorities – the budget deficit, gun control, immigration – why did the President spend so much of his inaugural speech on an issue the Alberta and Canadian governments figured had disappeared from his radar screen. Maybe he was just playing to history, in which case the sentences will disappear into the political ether. Or maybe he actually believes what he said.

Once re-elected, Canadian governments presumed Mr. Obama would approve Keystone – and, on balance, he probably still will. But his speech sent a frisson of apprehension through Canada and the private companies backing the project.

Mr. Obama had delayed a decision on Keystone before the election, despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s saying U.S. approval should be a “no-brainer.” Mr. Obama actually has a brain and, like Mr. Harper, he has political antennae. Just as Mr. Harper nixed a foreign takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan for largely political reasons, Mr. Obama delayed Keystone to please environmentalists who’d supported him.

Now, as then, the President’s decision will swirl around politics. TransCanada Pipelines, Keystone’s proponent, has changed the route in Nebraska, thereby bringing the Republican governor onside. Trade unions, a key part of the Democrats’ constituency, want the jobs and economic spinoffs Keystone would bring. Fifty-five senators, including nine Democrats, signed a letter urging Mr. Obama to approve the project.

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