Keystone XL

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order similar to this one approving TransCanada’s Keystone XL project.

President Donald Trump may leave the political battles with KXL opponents to Canadian leaders

The Keystone XL pipeline is back in the public eye, thanks to an imminent approval from the State Dept. Expect Standing Rock-style opposition that will probably include direct action and maybe even violent confrontations. But this time around Canada and Alberta are in an entirely different public relations position.

Keystone XLCanadians will remember then President Barack Obama’s statement when he rejected the original Keystone XL application by TransCanada back in 2015:

“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change…And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership. And that’s the biggest risk we face, not acting…Today, we’re continuing to lead by example. Because ultimately, if we’re going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky.”

The battle over Keystone XL – which included Hollywood celebrities, huge marches and demonstrations, and an effective campaign by American eco-activists to brand the oil sands as “dirty oil – was a turning point for the US environmental movement, which until then had been moribund and almost irrelevant to the global energy debate.

Keystone XL changed all that.

Keystone XL

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left), American President Donald Trump. Photo: CBC.

Environmental groups had a new national profile that attracted heavyweight charities eager to join the fray over climate change and anthropogenic global warming. New money meant new organizational abilities and resources that made a significant difference at the grassroots level.

Canada and Alberta didn’t help their cause.

Then Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s seat was in Calgary and he was a hero in the Alberta oil patch for his championing of the oil sands and pipelines. One of Harper’s many faux pas was to call approval of Keystone XL a “no-brainer.” Obama was reportedly not pleased, not pleased at all. The Conservatives were also perceived as climate change laggards, if not outright opponents.

Alberta Progressive Conservative governments, starting with Ed Stelmach and ending with the brief premiership of Jim Prentice, lobbied hard in Washington on behalf of Keystone XL but ultimately failed to move the political needle. The carbon levy on large emitters was full of loopholes and not set high enough to make much difference. Alberta didn’t have much else to point to in the way of climate mitigation policies. In any event, the provincial effort proved fruitless.

Keystone XL

Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

Then came the election of Donald Trump, a game changer in Washington. There are two key points to be made about how the Trump Administration will handle Keystone XL compared to the Obama Democrats.

One, Trump doesn’t give a crap about climate change or opposition to pipelines.

He campaigned on approving Keystone XL. He sides with Enterprise Partners in its dispute with the Standing Rock Sioux and eco-activists over the route of the Dakota Access pipeline. And he has made it very clear that one of his primary concerns is job creation and business growth in the energy industry.

Two, the Alberta and Canadian governments are in a much better position to fight the good fight this time around.

The Prime Minister has very publicly endorsed the energy transition worldview, which acknowledges that oil will be with us for many decades yet and that means approval of energy infrastructure to get oil sands crude to market. While Trudeau is considered a bit of a turncoat by Canadian eco-activists for approving construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline in British Columbia, the Liberal leader can point to a national carbon tax and other climate change policies to bolster his environmental creds. He is also a noted schmoozer and charmer who can speak the eco-activist’s language and isn’t afraid of a street fight.

Those are all political assets for the coming battle royale over KXL.

Keystone XL

Bill McKibben, in blue shirt and tie, at a Keystone XL protest rally. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Alberta Government is in an even stronger position than Ottawa. NDP Premier Notley announced the Climate Leadership Plan in 2015 that includes a provincial carbon tax, oil sands emissions cap, fugitive methane emissions reduction program, and support for decarbonizing technology development. Like Trudeau, she has links to the environmental movement and can speak the middle ground lingo when needed.

Expect the one-two punch of Trudeau and Notley to be a much more effective counter to the anti-Keystone XL movement than Harper, his cabinet ministers, and the Alberta PC premiers ever were.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Canadians leading the battle against KXL opponents. At the very least, the Prime Minister and the Premier have some moral and political capital to spend and they won’t hesitate to empty the bank account.

Today’s State Department announcement on Keystone XL should kick off the official start of what may turn out to be the biggest, nastiest, most polarizing energy fight in a long time, dwarfing the original opposition and making Standing Rock look like a kid’s water pistol shoot out.

But this time, expect Canadians to be in the thick of the fray.

Keystone XL