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Harper government missing boat on Keystone

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No sensible hockey coach would have his players cover everyone on the opposing team except their leading scorer. That would be a recipe for losing the game, not to mention the coach’s job. Yet the Harper government is doing exactly that in their promotion of the crucially important Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries in the United States.

Rather than properly addressing the arguments from the strongest players on the anti-pipeline team — climate activists such as and the David Suzuki Foundation — the government mostly ignores the climate issue, choosing instead to promote the project in the same way they did before U.S. President Barack Obama rejected the pipeline in 2012.

But if Obama again cancels Keystone XL, it will almost certainly be because of the feared impact of oil sands expansion on climate change, not the points that the government is focusing on. It is because of the climate issue that XL may not even get as far as Obama this time. Although the U.S. State Department draft report on Keystone released last week gave a generally positive review of the project, as did their report in 2011, today’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, is a well-known climate activist and he must approve the pipeline before the file can go to Obama.

In contrast to 2011 when then-secretary Hilary Clinton came out in support of the project even before her department had approved it, Kerry remains non-committal. That he used his first major address as secretary to make an urgent call for strong action on climate change should concern XL boosters.

Making matters worse is the fact that Obama no longer has to worry about getting elected and so can now do what he really wants. So the question becomes: which does the Obama think is more important, climate change or providing for America’s energy security?

Judging from his State of the Union and Inaugural addresses, his priority appears to be climate. This observation is reinforced by Obama’s war on coal-fired electricity generation. If his overriding concern were energy security, he would not be trying to kill coal, America’s leading source of electric power.

The U.S. has enough coal left in the ground to power the country for centuries and new technologies make it cleaner than ever before. Coupled with its long-term price stability, something not seen with natural gas or oil, coal is an ideal base-load power source for America.

But coal produces more carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas (GHG) of most concern in the climate debate, than its competitors. The technology to capture CO2 from power plants and store it underground will not be possible on a large scale before the 2020s. So the Obama administration wants to end coal usage in the U.S. no matter the consequence for energy security.

Anti-Keystone activists are similarly trying to kill the oil sands because the project produces more CO2 than conventional crude oil production. So they are working to prevent all methods of delivery of crude from the oil sands. Yet pipeline supporters apparently believe that by merely showing that the project is economically beneficial, enhances energy security, is relatively safe and is coming from a country that respects human rights and the environment, that they will win the day. They are being dangerously naïve.

The Canadian government must adjust its marketing of the oil sands, Keystone XL included, to properly address climate change, the real reason Obama may again reject the project.

It is not enough to assert that the oil sands constitute only 0.1 per cent of world GHG emissions, as Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver did in Chicago on Tuesday. If humanity’s emissions were causing dangerous climate change, then we should set an example by trying to cut back, not grow, projects that emit large volumes of CO2.

So the government must help the public realize that the fundamental premise of the global warming movement is unfounded. The science is too immature to know the future of climate. And climate control will remain science fiction for the foreseeable future so canceling valuable projects to try to "stop climate change" is irresponsible.

All the government need do is convene open, unbiased public hearings into the climatic impact of the oil sands. Qualified scientists from all sides of the debate should be invited to testify so that the public will better understand the vast uncertainties in the field. Support for expensive GHG reduction programs would consequently wither and the anti-Keystone campaign would fail without the government even committing themselves to a position on the science.

In the meantime, expectations that the outcome of the pipeline debate will be better this time around while still not addressing the major objection to the project is wishful thinking neither Canada nor the U.S. can afford.


Tom Harris is the executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) and an advisor to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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