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The pragmatist's pipeline

Critics call him a sellout, but Gary Doer insists Keystone XL doesn't violate his environmental principles

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/1/2014 (1306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If tradition counts for anything, Gary Doer is now in his final days as Canada's ambassador to the United States.

It's been a fascinating four years for Ottawa's chief representative in Washington, D.C. Doer has travelled around the continental U.S. many times over. He has used his folksy charm to get meetings with opinion leaders from across the broad spectrum of American politics. He has faced trade disputes, terrorist threats and battles over the construction of a new bridge between New York and Ontario.

Gary Doer says there is no discrepancy between his support of Keystone and his record on environmental issues.


Gary Doer says there is no discrepancy between his support of Keystone and his record on environmental issues.

But Doer's legacy will likely be defined by his strenuous support for the Keystone XL pipeline project, TransCanada Pipeline's grand plan to ship synthetic crude oil from Alberta all the way to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. Keystone is a high-value target for Ottawa that is literally and figuratively the lifeline for the Alberta oilsands.

As the political pressure and hyperbole have escalated on Keystone, so, too, has the scrutiny of Doer, Ottawa's point man on the file in the U.S. capital.


Recently, Doer was chastised in national news reports as having betrayed his environmental principles and allies with his support of Keystone. That is a simplistic view of Doer's environmental sensibilities.

Yes, Doer was the leader of a NDP government, and yes, he was one of North America's foremost advocates of renewable energy. But he was always, and in all respects, a pragmatic environmentalist. And in that context, Doer believes strongly his support for Keystone fits nicely with his environmental record.

"I knew going in to this job that this project was coming," Doer said in an interview. "I wasn't naive about it going in. If people look at what I did in Manitoba, they'll see that this all makes sense. I'm very confident that five years from now, when I'm out of this, people will look back and see that."

It is true Doer's environmental record is a mixed bag.

It was his choice that a new Manitoba Hydro transmission line would be built down the west side of Lake Manitoba rather than through the pristine boreal forest on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. He was a tireless champion of "clean" hydro electricity and helped usher in demand-side management to Manitoba. His government built the province's first wind farms. And he supported all major international climate change targets and treaties.

In other words, Doer was a climate change believer who helped reduce Manitoba's carbon footprint.

However, there is another side to the former Manitoba premier that shows he was pragmatic -- even reluctant -- in some of his green policies.


Doer sparred openly with the Public Utilities Board and the Clean Environment Commission over the length and cost of regulatory and environmental hearings. He chided the CEC for the time it took to review the expansion of the Red River Floodway and resisted calls to have Hydro dam construction subject to any in-depth environmental review.

And as Doer is quick to point out now, his government paved the way for the current mini-oil boom that is raging in southwestern Manitoba.

"Look, I passed the regulations that allowed our oil and gas industry to expand and I approved the construction of pipelines in Manitoba," Doer said. "I know the hyperbole of this is used by people to raise money. But I have never been against oil and I don't think it's inconsistent with anything I've said to support pipelines. I've never said this has to be an either-or thing."

Doer said his analysis shows shipping oil via pipeline is, in all environmental respects, the best option. It is safer and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than either rail or truck, he said. And given the U.S. isn't losing any of its appetite for crude oil, a pipeline makes practical and environmental sense, he added.

However, Doer agreed the debate over the pipeline is less about modes of transportation and more about the oilsands themselves, a natural resource that has become a lightening rod for environmental concern around the world.

As a result, Doer said, the political debate over Keystone XL has been boiled down to a simplistic battle between environmentalists and big oil.

"In the media, it's a battle between Oil Can Harriet and Birkenstock Betty," Doer said of the lobbyists doing battle right now in Washington. "But they're all just one-trick ponies. There are a lot of mouths being fed on both sides of this debate."


Doer's comments certainly evoke memories of his verbal battles with environmental lobbies while premier of Manitoba. Doer, for example, frequently complained about the cost of environmental reviews, suggesting much of the time and expense was the creation of lawyers keen on earning a living. "A coal plan can be approved in less than a year but hydroelectric, which is renewable, takes over four years," Doer said in 2008 about demands for a full environmental review of new-dam construction. "There's something wrong with that movie."

On the expansion of the Red River Floodway, Doer frequently derided the lengthy environmental reviews that accompanied the plan to widen and deepen the existing channel. "It's a ditch," Doer frequently exclaimed to reporters. "The fish either flow around the city or flood your basement. It's simple."

To this day, it doesn't take long for Doer to demonstrate some of the disdain he had for environmental critics.

Doer recalled his decision to bypass the east side of Lake Winnipeg for a new Hydro transmission line to protect the boreal forest. Doer always expected criticism from more conservative critics, given it was more expensive to go down the west side of Lake Manitoba. However, he was stunned at how the environmental lobby reacted.

"I took steps to protect one half of the entire boreal forest in Manitoba," Doer said. "I remember the environmentalists saying to me, 'What a sellout! You didn't protect the whole boreal forest.' "

By his own admission, Doer is in "overtime" now in his diplomatic posting. Although there is no sign Ottawa is moving to find a replacement, Doer admits he is working to finish off several important files, including Keystone XL. There is absolutely no mistaking the fact Doer wants the final two phases of Keystone completed before he finishes.

When asked directly if he will demand to stay on until Keystone is decided, Doer responds with his trademark obfuscation.

"I've still got stuff to do," Doer said. "Then, I'll move on."

Read more by Dan Lett.


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