Straight Talk
LORRIE GOLDSTEIN - GOLDSTEIN: Obama's Keystone follies

U.S. President Barack Obama waves before he speaks at McGavock High School in Nashville, January 30, 2014.

Credits: REUTERS/Larry Downing


The thing you have to understand about the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is that it's not a fight about reality.

If the issue is reality, then in light of the world's continuing demand for oil, the Alberta to Gulf Coast pipeline is a relatively safe, environmentally sound method of transporting it.

It's not perfect, or perfectly safe. No form of energy transportation - consider the Lac-Megantic rail tragedy - is. But it's better than the alternatives.

The U.S. State Department said as much on Friday, which is the same thing it said in 2011, which is the same thing five assessments of the Keystone XL have said over the past five years in what is starting to resemble the script of Bill Murray's Groundhog Day.

What the State Department is saying, again, is that since Alberta's oilsands are going to be developed anyway, the Keystone XL is not going to contribute significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it will cause fewer emissions than if the pipeline is scrapped and alternative methods of shipping the oil are employed, such as rail.

MORE: One small step for Keystone - with many more to come

That's the reality. But this isn't about reality. It's about politics.

The way the U.S. system works, the final call on Keystone rests with President Barack Obama alone.

Government agencies can comment on it - and more of them will now that the State Department has - but the buck stops with Obama.

Obama has said he has to be convinced Keystone will not contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.

Since this is exactly what his own State Department keeps telling him, you would think presidential approval of Keystone would be a slam dunk.

Except it isn't because Obama, who is starting to resemble Hamlet in his reluctance to make a decision on Keystone, is a contradiction in terms.

Obama talks the talk of the environmental movement, while simultaneously boasting that under his administration U.S. oil, natural gas and coal production is booming along with (ironically) pipeline construction. Except for Keystone.

That's because Keystone has become the bogeyman used by environmentalists (and their fundraisers) to attack the entire fossil fuel industry.

These people aren't interested in making Keystone as safe as possible, or limiting its environmental impact as much as possible.

There is no conceivable set of conditions under which the U.S. and Canadian environmental movements will ever approve of Keystone.

There is nothing Prime Minister Stephen Harper or Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver could say, or do, that would cause them to change their minds about Keystone.

The environmentalists want to kill Keystone by any means necessary, whether through political pressure or court challenges.

Logic has nothing to do with their position because Keystone, and indeed the oilsands, are insignificant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions compared to the real culprit in North America which is U.S. coal.

If logic was involved, environmentalists would be aiming their fire squarely at U.S. coal production and the fact that under Obama, American coal exports - the dirtiest fossil fuel - have reached record levels.

Domestically, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are down but not because of anything the environmentalists have done.

MORE: Obama makes me happy to be Canadian

What's happened is that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology, which environmentalists oppose, is freeing up vast U.S. reserves of natural gas - the cleanest fossil fuel.

Some of that is now being used to replace coal-fired electricity in the U.S., thus lowering overall emissions.

But America still supplies about 40% of its domestic electricity needs through coal, compared to under 13% in Canada, where our main energy sources are non-greenhouse gas emitting hydro and nuclear power.

That said, all the U.S. - meaning Obama - is really doing is shipping its greenhouse gas emissions abroad to Europe and Asia through record coal exports.

That's why the ongoing five-year pier six brawl over Keystone is so absurd.

In terms of the issues it's ostensibly about, the oilsands and global greenhouse gas emissions, it's insignificant. Indeed, the oilsands are insignificant.

But this isn't a fight about reality.

It's a symbolic fight fueled by U.S. domestic politics and an American president who talks the talk of the environmentalists when it comes to Keystone, but who walks the walk of the U.S. fossil fuel industry on almost everything else.

Whatever decision Obama makes about Keystone, it will have nothing to do with reality. It will have everything to do with American politics.

That's why there's no way to predict what it will be.

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