How political symbolism brought down Keystone XL

·6 min read
How political symbolism brought down Keystone XL

The new president of the United States described his inauguration on Wednesday as a moment to move forward. But moving forward properly requires a reckoning with the past. In Joe Biden's case, that reckoning came for the Keystone XL pipeline.

The project's fate seemed to be sealed years ago, but it haunts us still. And now, with strident words from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney about a trade war, it could haunt Canadian politics indefinitely.

Or, Canadian leaders could decide that it's time for them to move forward, too.

The executive order that rescinded Keystone XL's permit on Wednesday states that "the United States must be in a position to exercise vigorous climate leadership in order to achieve a significant increase in global climate action and put the world on a sustainable climate pathway."

If that sounds familiar, it's because President Barack Obama said almost the same thing when he blocked Keystone in November 2015. "America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change," Obama said. "And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership."

John Kerry — secretary of state in 2015 and now Biden's climate envoy — put an even finer point on the significance of Keystone in his own statement at the time. "The United States cannot ask other nations to make tough choices to address climate change if we are unwilling to make them ourselves," he said.

A pipeline that became a referendum

In his remarks, Obama argued that the practical value of the pipeline had been wildly overstated — by both sides. Keystone XL, he said, would be neither "a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others."

But the economic arguments in favour of the pipeline could not overcome the profound symbolic value assigned to it by environmental groups and climate-focused voters.

On its own, Keystone wouldn't spell the difference between a green future and a "climate disaster." But the pipeline became a referendum on the U.S. government's commitment to combating climate change — a tangible thing on which American activists could focus their energies.

Trump, who actively sought to undermine attempts to fight climate change, revived the project. But the political frame that was placed around Keystone XL in 2015 never went away, while legal challenges to the project continued.

By the fall of 2019, most of the major Democratic candidates for the presidency had pledged to rescind Trump's order on their first day in office. Last May, Biden insisted that he would kill the pipeline.

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press
Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

After Biden's victory in the presidential election, the Eurasia Group said that rescinding the permit was a "table stake" for the Democratic president and that backing away would risk "raising the ire of activists, their committed followers, and — importantly — the left wing of the Democratic party in Congress."

"Rescinding KXL would be one area the Biden administration could act [on] and deliver a win to a key political constituency with no congressional interference," the global consulting firm said.

Bill McKibben, one of the activists who led the campaign against Keystone, wrote in the New Yorker on Thursday that he was grateful for Biden's decision and never doubted that the new president would follow through. "Even today," he wrote, "Keystone is far too closely identified with climate carelessness for a Democratic president to be able to waver."

So the second death of Keystone shouldn't have surprised anyone. It might have seemed rude of Biden to not wait a day or two to allow Canadian officials to make a fuller presentation on the pipeline's behalf, but that only would have delayed the inevitable.

The lingering costs of climate inaction

Perhaps Biden thought he was doing his neighbours a favour by ripping the Band-Aid off quickly.

What might have happened to Keystone XL had Canada and the United States taken more aggressive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the years leading up to Obama's decision? It's an intriguing hypothetical. Keystone may have paid the price ultimately for decades of global inaction on climate change.

In the here and now, any debate about Keystone will have to consider whether its additional capacity is even needed at this point. In the meantime, Premier Kenney wants Justin Trudeau's government to impose trade sanctions on the United States if Biden refuses to revisit his decision.

Stephen Harper could be ungracious in his defence of Keystone — he famously said that approving it was a "no brainer" — but his government doesn't seem to have ever publicly threatened to impose sanctions if Obama rejected it. Nor does it appear anyone called for sanctions when Obama officially killed the project shortly after the Trudeau government came to office.

Sanctions out of spite?

This idea of reprisals seems to have originated recently with Jack Mintz, a Canadian economist, who also conceded that imposing tariffs could be akin to "cutting off our own nose to spite our face."

Notably, Erin O'Toole's federal Conservatives have not joined the premier in calling for sanctions. Kenney — whose government is polling poorly and whose party is being out-fundraised by the opposition — is spoiling for a fight. He has seized on the fact that federal officials did not respond to Biden's decision in particularly strong terms — and the Liberals may not have struck the right tone for those listening in the Prairies.

WATCH: Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says Ottawa 'folded' on Keystone XL

But before launching a trade war against this country's closest ally and its new leader, one should consider the potential results and opportunity costs.

Would a trade war convince President Biden to brave the wrath of his supporters and reverse a campaign promise? Or would a renewed fight over Keystone XL simply consume political and diplomatic capital that could be put toward other things?

Kenney has said sanctions might discourage the Biden administration from intervening against two other contested pipelines that originate in Alberta — Line 5 and Line 3. Writing in the New Yorker, McKibben did identify Line 3 as a target. But there's also a decent chance that sanctions would only inflame existing tensions around those projects.

Threats and futility

In May, 2015 — nearly six years ago — former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson wrote that it was time for the Canada-U.S. relationship to move on from Keystone XL. Robertson argued that there were too many other important things to talk about. Six years later, that list of important things includes fostering collaboration on clean energy, fending off 'Buy American' policies and combating China's aggression.

Still, Kenney warned that if the Trudeau government does not do more to defend Keystone, "that will only force us to go further in our fight for a fair deal in the federation."

But if the battle for Keystone was effectively lost more than five years ago, should the federal government's willingness to keep fighting it have any bearing on Alberta's relationship with the rest of the country?

The death of Keystone XL will have a real impact on those Albertans whose jobs depended on it. There are real anxieties and questions that need to be addressed, not least by the federal government.

But the question now is whether fighting over Keystone will do anything to address those concerns — or whether it's time to put that political energy toward other purposes.