WASHINGTON -- A few days before U.S. President Barack Obama's second inauguration, Clark Stevens, deputy White House press secretary, repeated to journalists a shopworn phrase: "The president is committed" to dealing with climate-change issues and national energy needs.
It is not what he said, but why he said it just then that may be of interest in Alberta, home to the world's most abundant oilsands reserves.
The White House spokesman was doing his job: advancing what Obama would stress in his inaugural address. What the president would say, the White House spokesman underlined, is that climate change and energy policy will be right at the top of Obama's agenda.
Obama adequately fulfilled that promise: after the usual poetry, past the halfway point of his speech. "We will respond to the threat of climate change" he declared, solemnly speaking of a coming environmental catastrophe that included the destruction of forests, waterways and crop lands, and pledging to take the "path toward sustainable energy." For good measure, he added that is "how we preserve our planet, commended to our care by God."
Despite the sops tossed to his environmental allies, there can be little doubt that the president is heavily invested in the future of the Keystone XL pipeline with all the political hype and the gazillion dollars worth of lobbying generated by Big Oil and Big Green.
Keystone locks these opposing forces in a seemingly inseparable embrace; there is worry about the climate because, as the president said: "None can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms."
If Obama means what he said about climate change, Keystone's future would seem to be doomed -- and that's clearly the message groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defence Council took away.
The latter organization flatly declared that White House approval of Keystone would be "fundamentally inconsistent" with Obama's consistent vow to attack the forces driving climate change.
That warning came even as some environmental leaders privately acknowledge that deprived of the U.S. market, Canada's oilsands production would be quickly snapped up by China, which already emits more hydrocarbons than American cutbacks could ever displace.
And hydrocarbon emissions from Keystone would have only a minimal effect at best. Just last year, in fact, a Congressional Research Service study found the extra oil produced here from Canadian tarsands would increase U.S. annual greenhouse emissions by a virtually undetectable 0.06 to 0.3 per cent.
None of that deters the green movement or its allies in the American professoriate, many of whom are beholden to federal grants.
After all, most reason, Obama stopped the Keystone pipeline a year ago and now he could stop it for good. But is that likely to happen? Clearly, nobody knows at this point -- including, I suspect, Obama.
What we are likely to see is an old-fashioned power struggle over stakes that are truly humongous or even immeasurable. One side emphasizes the worldwide hunger for more fossil-fuel-based energy. The other side counters with predictions of climate catastrophe in the extreme, coupled with major political discomfort for Obama.
The debate comes at a time when the United States seems set to swim in natural gas production unless groundwater pollution and other visible health hazards linked to "fracking" pull those profitable plugs.
As of now, however, there is no recognizable anger over hydraulic cracking. That is why the growing number of U.S. "frackers" are heroes even Barack Obama professes to love.
But, the Keystone XL was not conceived because of Canadian wishes for more market. It was born because American oil giants see good profits for years to come, and it is too silly for words to think they are resigned to losing the billions of dollars they have invested in developing the Alberta oilsands and the Gulf Coast refinery designed to process that crude.
Granted, the debate over climate versus oil-sands oil will continue fiercely throughout 2013. But for all of Obama's climate pledges, the current odds on Canadian tote boards are three to one on the Keystone XL going all the way to Texas.
Bogdan Kipling is a veteran Canadian journalist based in Washington.
-- McClatchy Tribune