The long-awaited U.S. State Department Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the Keystone XL Project is now a public document. It concluded environmental effects of the pipeline are not negative in a broad context.
It awaits comment from a variety of departments before the final consideration by U.S. President Barack Obama, so the final decision is still months away.
Reaction to the report confirms the importance of the role Keystone has played in bringing consideration of environmental issues into some degree of balance with economic development.
First, it raises the question of why large companies, petro-based or not, have not been inclined to consider environmental impacts as a matter of course. They may argue they do, but one has to wonder if Trans-Canada had seriously considered re-routing around the Nebraska aquifer in the first place. Conceivably, with such a change, the project might have received approval years ago, and received credit as a proponent for environmental balance. Surely, they could have foreseen the potential outburst of opposition when local concerns were ignored. Although it's hindsight to say it now, that might have avoided the problem on the spot.
Second, as the State Department report makes clear, it is no longer an environmental issue, but purely a political one. This comes from the line in the sand drawn first by the proponent, then vigorously and publicly supported by the Harper government.
Not only has Harper made Keystone into a political matter, in the broader purview of international diplomacy, he has made a point of tweaking and annoying the U.S. on many fronts. It begs the question of why he feels justified interfering in internal U.S. policy debate. Imagine his reaction if the U.S. did that to Canada. Although this may appear to get him some votes from anyone concerned about a perceived need to stand up to the U.S., it also has the effect of making U.S. decision makers wonder why they should do anything in particular to support their neighbour. Any chance to tip the scales in a close decision has been foregone.
Harper has set an unusual precedent by spending heavily on advertising and special appearances in the U.S. in support of Keystone. This may have done the Canadian position a major disservice. It has clearly helped polarize the political issue. One is tempted to ask what other possible needs were foregone to fund the lobbying, and the resulting loss to Canada's economy. For example, what benefits might have derived from spending those millions on urban infrastructure?
The positive side of the whole situation is the general public, particularly in Canada and the U.S., is much more aware of environmental issues, particularly climate change, than might otherwise have been the case.
The issue is not really Keystone, but the broader social concern regarding environmental impact of human activities on land, sea and air. In this case, the oilsands have become the "poster boy" or, perhaps more appropriate, the "baby seal" on the issue of climate change.
The oilsands development is huge by any standard of measurement. Whether it's CO2 emissions generated in the process of extraction, or the potential for water pollution from the "tailing ponds" or landscape destruction from the surface operations, one cannot deny the magnitude of the potential impact on land, water and air. Considerable efforts have gone into addressing these problems, but more needs to be done to improve security from a major event, or a series of smaller ones that in combination could become major. Water quality concerns alone over time could sneak up on the downstream like gray hair: it's not just an overnight phenomenon, but a long-term pervasive effect.
The positive benefits of the entire issue are bound up now in the recognition, at least by most citizens who think about it, both environmental and economic factors deserve equal attention in any developmental project.
It means existing developments need to take a new all-inclusive perspective. Certainly, this is true for the coal industry, especially in the U.S. and China. It is now clear this applies to the oilsands and transportation issues.
Recent weather anomalies, even within North America, cannot be passed off as simple long-term trends. Concurrent high-moisture events leading to flooding in the eastern parts occurring in parallel with severe drought in California and other parts of the Midwest and west make it clear human impacts are substantial and likely to get worse even if all emissions stopped today.
No amount of advertising or rhetoric can change this new reality. It's time to take climate change seriously, and we have Keystone to thank for improving our awareness of it.
Overall, politics aside, Keystone still makes sense under appropriate regulation. Let's hope that by pushing too blatantly, Canada hasn't screwed it up.
Jim Collinson is a management consultant specializing in the complexities surrounding energy, economic and environmental issues.