Prime Minister Stephen Harper sounded surprisingly truculent last week in New York when he said he would not take no for an answer on the Keystone XL pipeline. U.S. President Barack Obama has yet to decide whether to allow TransCanada Corp. to build the line from the Canadian border to Oklahoma to ship Canadian bitumen to Gulf Coast refineries. Opponents of the project have the president's ear. Mr. Harper warned he will continue advocating the line even if the president turns it down.
Canadians are not used to their prime ministers taking this quarrelsome tone with a U.S. president. After all, it's not Mr. Harper's pipeline and it's not his country. It might seem presumptuous for him to say it has to be built. The more he casts the case as a dispute between himself and Mr. Obama, the more he seems to weaken the chances of a favourable ruling from the president.
But this is the way the political game is often played in the U.S., where Mr. Harper's remarks may not seem out of order. Canadians have often learned, in a series of trade disputes, that no decision in the U.S. political system is ever final. There is always another court or another regulatory body or another congressional committee where a previous decision can be challenged and the merits of any case can be re-examined. Success in such a system requires persistence. Opponents of Keystone XL have shown persistence. Mr. Harper intends to show more.
Persistence is currently paralyzing Washington. Republicans opposed to Mr. Obama's health-insurance reforms are not discouraged by adoption of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 nor by defeat of reform opponent Mitt Romney in the presidential election a year ago. They are making their case over again in the course of a budget debate. In this context, Mr. Harper's plan to keep making the case for a pipeline that will serve both Canadian oil producers and U.S. oil consumers seems relatively mild and reasonable.
Mr. Harper is on solid ground in drawing attention to the economic logic supporting the Keystone XL project. He is going to have to deal squarely with the environmental objections to oilsands development, however, because the oil industry and its friends are losing that argument every week, every time another celebrity goes to look at the Fort McMurray region and the damage that has been done to the land and the water. His letter to Mr. Obama proposing joint Canada-U.S. measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector is an excellent start. Persistence may help. Practical steps to deal with the objections will also help.