In a remarkable week when he had to ask for the resignation of the Governor General, when a new COVID-19 variation took hold while the original strain continued to rage out of control, and when a supply interruption disrupted the distribution of vaccine, there was one bright note for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
That was a favour he got from Joe Biden when the new president did what he had promised to do on day one: he killed the Keystone XL pipeline – again. Killed by Barack Obama, only to be resurrected by Donald Trump, this is the pipeline that was to carry 800,000 barrels a day of crude oil from the Alberta oil sands – “tar sands,” as Biden calls them – through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska en route to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
Viewing the cancellation as a favour is, I know, not a conventional interpretation. The general reaction in Canada’s business and political communities was a restrained version of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s response. He was enraged, termed the cancellation “a gut punch for the Canadian and Alberta economies,” and called on the federal government to retaliate by imposing trade and economic sanctions on the United States.
Kenney distress was as predictable as President Biden’s action. The premier does not acknowledge, publicly at least, that the days of King Oil are numbered, that the country has to move away from dependence on fossil fuels, that he bet on the wrong pony when he invested $1.5 billion of Alberta taxpayers’ money in Keystone, or that he is leading his province down the wrong side of history by promoting open-pit coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
There will be no retaliation from the Canadian government and no trade war between the Liberals in Ottawa and the Democrats in Washington. Trudeau said he was “disappointed” – the mildest objection he could have registered. His new foreign minister Marc Garneau will be saying the same as he introduces himself to officials in the Biden administration.
There will be no all-out, all-points lobby like the one Stephen Harper’s Conservatives mounted when Obama was in the process of axing Keystone. (According to Washington insiders, members of the Obama administration became reluctant to accept calls from Ottawa because they knew they would be subjected to an earful about Keystone.)
Trudeau and Biden are on the same page. Both have committed their government to the Paris climate accord and to reducing their country’s carbon emissions. Biden will be doing what Trudeau has been doing since he came to office in 2015 – trying to strike a balance between environmental protection and resource development.
The United States is effectively energy self-sufficient, importing enough oil to offset its exports. It does not need additional Canadian oil and, under Biden, does not want any from the “tar” sands. Killing Keystone was an easy call for the new president and a signal to the environmentalists in his base that he is listening to them.
In seeking a short-term political balance, Biden serves the environmental interest by scrapping Keystone and the resource-development interest by prolonging “fracking” – the controversial practice of pumping a water-sand-chemical mixture into wells at high pressure to fracture the rock and release the natural gas. Fracking is a major industry in Pennsylvania, a swing state that Biden barely won in November. So fracking gets a pass for the moment, probably until after the midterm elections in 2022.
For Trudeau, trying to strike an environment-resource balance, has been an awkward juggling act – with one hand, create a national carbon tax, accept the ambitious Paris accord targets for emissions reduction, and invest heavily in green technology; meanwhile, with the other hand, encourage the resource sector by buying the stalled Trans Mountain pipeline.
Alberta’s oil sands are the largest source of co2 emissions in Canada and a significant impediment to reaching the Paris reductions. Construction of Keystone XL would have taken the country in the wrong direction – to greater, not less, oil sands production and emissions. Reaching (or even approaching) the Paris targets will a massive challenge. Increased development of the oil sands could make the challenge impossible.
There will be a general election in Canada before terribly long. If the minority Liberals have their way, it will happen when the COVID curve has flattened and vaccinations are well in hand. Trudeau has signalled his intention to pivot to a green economy, to make the environment a centrepiece of his re-election campaign. Having the new American administration on the same wavelength can only help.
President Biden did Trudeau another favour on day one. By going out of his way to announce, unprompted, that his first call to a foreign leader would be to his friend and ally in Ottawa, he sent a signal that, after the miseries of the Trump interregnum, the two countries once again stand together in the world. That has to be music to Liberal ears.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, retired this month from teaching political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].