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Jeffrey Simpson: What Canada's missing about Keystone

Columnist takes reader questions at noon ET on the pipeline decision

  • Hi, we're here today with columnist Jeffrey Simpson to discuss the Keystone XL pipeline, an oil story that has become a giant political and environmental issue on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. The Harper government has portrayed the White House's deferral of a ruling on the pipeline as a purely political decision, he wrote in his latest column, but "there are broader lessons from the Keystone affair that the Canadian and Alberta governments, and the oil industry, appear to have ignored."

    Please start submitting your questions now. Jeffrey will be online at noon ET to begin the discussion.

    Please note: hitting "enter" will submit your question.
  • Hi everyone, thanks for joining. Our first question for Jeffrey: if you had to guess, do you think this pipeline will ultimately be approved in some form?
  • Yes, the pipeline will be approved in due course. Yesterday's decision by the Nebraska governor and both senators, one Republican and one Democratic, removes a major local impediment. They changed their position because Trans-Canada agreed to shift the line away from an environmentally sensitive areas, which raises the question why TCP didn't didn't do that a long time ago. It will also be approved because the US remains "addicted to oil," (a phrase from various U.s. presidents). The pipeline has the support of the trade unions because of short-term jobs, the Republican Party, big business. TCP and the Canadian oil inudstry has also spent untold millions on lobbyists in Washington. Against this, the environmental movement will lose. But the president will definitely want to push this beyond the next election lest he further disappoint the environmental movement whose members in large numbers supported his election so eagerly.
  • Next question is from "ST"...
  • How will this affect Harper's position towards the environmental movement? Will he begin to acknowledge it, or will he attempt to surveil, destroy, and discredit them?
  • ST: To be blunt, Mr. Harper doesn't care a whit for the environmental "movement." Its supporters are not part of his core group of supporters. That he has never once given an entire speech about climate change on Canadian oil during six years as prime minister speaks volumes.
  • Jeffrey, we met last year and discussed other potential solutions to improve the greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands (as I outlined in my book, World's Greenest Oil), in which taxation policy would reward oil sands companies with low GHG emissions an punish those with high GHG. At that time there was little interest from either Federal or Provincial politicians, who supported the (not relevant) argument of "ethical oil". Two questions. First, do you think the "ethical oil" argument is now dead? Secondly, do you think that either level of government will consider changes in taxation (or royalty) policy to address GHG issues?
  • Peter: I remember our interesting conversations. On the first matter, the "ethical oil" absurdity is most assuredly not dead politically. It lives in the speeches and rhetoric of Harper ministers. Read their lips. The "ethical oil" industry is one of the greatest perversion of the word "ethical" I have ever heard. Ethics is the study of morals, the difference between right and wrong, and the great philosophers through the ages have been preoccupied with what constitutes the good society. Ethical considerations in secular and religious philosophy are about striving for something better. What the right-wing fringers who dreamed up this argument are suggesting is that Canada use as its moral compass regimes such as the one we just heloped overthrow in Libya. It is the first time in Canadian history where we are being invited to take comfort from being better than autocracies, dictatorships, thugocracies and other ugly political regimes. In other words, if you lower the standard of comparison far enough, almost anything we do will be ethical. On the second point raised in your book, I see no evidence alas that the Alberta and federal Conservative governments are interested in using any economic tools to deal with the emissions problems -- be it taxes or markets -- without which we will continue miserably to fail to reduce GHG emissions. The governments do not take climate change seriously, and are fearful of doing anything to upset the golden revenue goose that is the oil industry.
    by Jeffrey Simpson edited by Lara Pingue 11/16/2011 5:18:12 PM
  • Does the broader national interest of employment, vastly increased royalties and taxes ever outweigh the local interests of a minority of Canadians living along the route? Does their desire to landlock our most valuable global commodity trump the very tangible economic benefits to Canadians from BC to Ontario and beyond?
  • DS:The questions in Canada about this pipeline do not come from a "minority of Canadians living along the route." Of course there are tangible economic benefits from building the pipeline, just as there would be from any other large construction project such as port upgrading, road and bridge construction etc. As for the oil that is to be trans-shipped, there are two issues: do we want to enhance the availability of a fossil fuel that is particular dirty; that is, oil from the tar sands; and if so, are we willing not to put a price on the environmental damage the use of that product causes.
  • Why is Canadian oil not being being refined by Canadians in Canada? Are we not losing a job maker here?
  • I have before me last week's report from the International energy Agency -- hardly a left-wing group. It says this, "on planned policies, rising fossil fuel energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change." You might recall the scientists around the world -- and governments, including the Canadian -- agree that all efforts should be directed to restricting temperate increases to 2 degrees Celsius. Says the IEA, current policies are taking us to a "long-term global temperature increase of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius. So, yes, there will be jobs and revenues; yet if we collectively to not reverse the trends towards greater fossil suel use, we will face "catastrophic" climate change. You choose.
  • If so-called tar-sands oil can't be brought to market in the United States or Asia, and isn't welcome in Europe, a possibility raised in your column, what happens to it?
  • Tom G: Because the facilities with unused capacity exist in the United States, so the companies think it cheaper to ship the raw material south. This has been the history of Canada, by and large: a hewer of wood and a drawer of water. If Alberta were led by the great Peter Lougheed, this resource would definitely have been developed, but in a more orderly, environmentally respectful and job-creating way. He would never have coutenanced the "rush for spoils" approach that you expect from the industry and that, alas, infects the Alberta and federal governments.
  • Re-posting this question in case it got lost: If so-called tar-sands oil can't be brought to market in the United States or Asia, and isn't welcome in Europe, a possibility raised in your column, what happens to it?
  • Lara: The resource belong to the people, and it is not going away. It will be there forever. The issue is how it should be developed, under what laws and regulations. If the resource were exploited with more regards to GHG emissions -- which will grow by the way as production ranmps up and more use is made of in-situ techniques that required natural gas burning, then there would be less opposition and concern. The industry, however, rather than trying to get ahead of its critics or at least meet them half-way, as the forest products industry did, continues the strategy of self-pity, hiring lobbyists and consultants, taking out advertisements, issuing veiled threats, and having the governments pretty much on their side. I mean when you have a federal environment ministers who, on his first day in office, begins reading from the "ethical oil" script, you know that within the industry they must have thought they had died and gone to oil heaven.
  • Now that Obama has a reprieve from making a decision on Keystone XL, what will be the next "hot button" issue for the environmental movement?
  • GF: I suspect they will continue to pressure him on the Keystone XL. Offshore drilling will remain a big issue, since Democrats are largely hesitant whereas Republicans use as their motto: "Drill, baby, drill."
  • Why do you think that avoiding the Ogallala aquifer seems to be TransCanada's "plan B?" Does it not seem common sense to avoid possible environmental catastrophe and political red tape by both reducing risk and appeasing opponents to the project?
  • Trevor: Because it seems the easiest and best way to secure eventual approval. Leave TCP out of this for a moment; the oil/tax sands industry has a challenge. It needs the U.S. market. Foget the stuff about Asia. The pipeline through northern B.c. to the coast isn't going to happen because the aboriginals won't have it. Shipping more down to Vancouver means a lot more tanker traffic in the Strait of Juna De Fuca, which is already rather crowded. Further pipelines of any size to the States are going to meet resistance as long as the industry does not clean up its act. These are the lessons the industry should take from what is happening. Instead, they still think the world needs their oil and moreover it is "ethical" oil.
  • Jeffrey, do you see the change in approach in 'lobbying' by Alberta's new premier, Alison Redford, as being any more effective than the one of her predecessors, notably the Stelmach government?
  • Tom: No; different face; same message; ultimately no change.
  • Readers, it looks we're out of time today. Thanks for your participation, and thanks to Jeffrey Simpson for joining us.
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