Sticky precedent? Keystone XL rejection could be sign of more trouble to come for Alberta oilsands

In the fall of 2009, not long after a group of Greenpeace protesters invaded a Shell site in northern Alberta, Edward Maibach gave an interview on the state of the in the American mind.

Maibach, the director for the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, studies how global warming narratives and facts are communicated in the United States. At that point, he said, Alberta’s oilsands simply didn’t register in the U.S. debate.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of Americans,” he said, “are totally unaware (of them).”

Much has changed.

On Friday, Barack Obama, flanked by Vice-President Joe Biden and John Kerry, his Secretary of State, announced his rejection of the . In the process, he delivered a huge victory to a cross-border environmental movement that has homed in, with increasing focus, on the oilsands and their role in driving global climate change.

Few who follow the issue closely were shocked by the announcement. “I’d have been surprised if he approved it,” said Rob Merrifield, a former Conservative MP who was until recently Alberta’s trade commissioner in Washington. “I’d given up on this administration two years ago. I told the prime minister that.”

But some were taken aback by the timing. “At some level I was kind of stunned,” said Bill McKibben, a former writer for the New Yorker who became one of the leading figures in the anti-Keystone fight.

“We had hoped for a little while now that this was coming, but I remember back when we started in 2011 everyone, and I mean everyone, said that it was a completely hopeless fight, that this was a done deal, that there was no possible way we could stop it.”

In many ways, though, the debate about Keystone hasn’t been about Keystone, the actual project, for several years now. In the U.S., the proposed pipeline, designed to bring Alberta oil to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast, became a proxy for a larger fight: about climate change, yes, but also about the role of environmentalism in the Democratic Party. It became, in its own way, a shibboleth: a test by which believers in the climate fight could pick out politicians with a common cause.

The question now, is whether — with the Keystone victory behind them — U.S. environmentalists will double down on the oilsands or if they’ll move on to other battles. In other words, will the Keystone be a one-off, a symbolic win for the environmental movement, or is it a sign of more trouble to come for Alberta oil?

For his part, Anthony Swift, a New York-based attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, believes it’s the latter. “The arguments against the pipeline are not going to go away,” he said.

McKibben agrees. “I would say it’s very much a sign,” he said, “that they’re going to face a difficult path ahead.”

Merrifield doesn’t think the decision is catastrophic for the oilsands. “The investments that are in the oilsands right now, these are long-term sunk costs,” he said. “The money is invested for the long term. It’s a 50-year horizon. So the idea that they’re going to shut down all the oilsands is shortsighted.”

At the same time, he does think the pipeline’s rejection could mean trouble for oilsands growth. “My real concern about Keystone isn’t Keystone,” he said. “It’s, how does the president say no to Keystone and yes to Enbridge lines or any other line?”

In other words, if Keystone does become a precedent, and future pipelines face similar fights, Merrifield worries that growth in the oilsands could be constrained by the lack of export capacity. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic front-runner for the presidency, did nothing to assuage those fears Friday when she called the Keystone decision “The right call,” on Twitter.

RelatedJen Gerson: Keystone XL achieved a symbolic power that went beyond its actual importanceDefiant oilsands industry adds Keystone XL rejection to list of woesClaudia Cattaneo: Obama betrayed America’s closest ally over Keystone XL to prop up climate change legacy

In Ottawa, Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, pronounced himself “disappointed” while at the same time he hinted his government’s new approach to climate change could yield better results for future projects.

“The -U.S. relationship is much bigger than any one project and I look forward to a fresh start with President Obama to strengthen our remarkable ties in a spirit of friendship and co-operation,” he said in a statement.

It isn’t clear however, that American environmentalists at least, believe there is a middle ground on the oilsands. McKibben certainly doesn’t. “I think with each passing year the ludicrousness of digging up oil in that place, in that part of the world and trying to ship it out becomes clearer.”

All the sunny ways on earth aren’t likely to shift McKibben and those who believe as he does. Whether they can influence the next U.S. president, though, is the question that really matters now.

National Post

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