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Furor Over Keystone Pipeline Caught U.S. and Canada Flat-Footed on Climate Change

Despite climate sweet talk from Alberta now, Keystone is a saga of missed opportunity and diplomatic failure, experts say.

Mar 20, 2013
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper at a press conference i

As part of its effort to persuade the United States to accept the Keystone pipeline and the oil sands fuel it would carry from Canada, the province of Alberta is advertising itself as an environmental leader at the cutting edge of clean energy development.

On Sunday, the province took out a half-page ad in the New York Times asserting that it is "committed to raising the bar higher on its leading climate change policy."

"Our past, present and future environmental management actions—including the fact that Alberta already has a price on carbon and was the first place in North America to legally require all large industry to curb emissions—are unmatched by any oil producing region in the world," Premier Alison Redford said in a companion statement.

"To ignore the good work done in Alberta to begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—while others around the world simply talk—is disingenuous in the extreme," she added in a speech the next day.

Alberta's talk about its actions to address the climate issue came as Redford prepares for a trip to Washington next month to lobby for the project—her fourth such visit in 18 months.

But the ad, which the opposition immediately said was misleading, was a lobbying tactic, not a diplomatic overture. Indeed, many experts see the long-running Keystone saga as a failure of diplomacy on all sides.

Foreign policy experts say the Keystone could have been used to forge a grand, cross-border bargain to jointly address climate change—a bargaining chip toward agreements on carbon taxes, cap-and-trade regimes, or other comprehensive approaches.

But both governments are so ensnarled in their own politics they didn't work together as they have on so many past environmental issues. Instead, the furor over this single project has overshadowed the two countries' overall energy and environmental relationship and left little more than a war of words between those with vested interests on all sides.

Sometimes the facts get bent in the process.

Official statistics show that Alberta lags the rest of Canada in controlling emissions, even as Canada itself is falling short of its promises.

Canada's most recent annual emissions trend report projected that the country will achieve only half the nationwide greenhouse gas reductions it has pledged to make by the year 2020—its promise to cut them 17 percent compared to 2005. (The U.S., too, is struggling with the same target, reached at negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009.)

Alberta, which like other Canadian provinces controls its own natural resources, has the least ambitious target of any province. If met, it would leave its emissions well above the 2005 level. Absent any new regulations, Alberta's emissions are projected to grow from 231 million tons to 285 million tons. (One ton of carbon is roughly a month's typical energy use by an American household, or two month's driving of a typical car, according to an estimate by the University of Arizona.)

The most significant source of Alberta's future emissions is the production of bitumen, the thick oil that is mined from the tar sands. The province expects it will take decades to bring them down to about 2005 levels.

As a public relations tactic, the pro-environment posture sounds good. But as a measure of real progress on climate change it falls short.

Broad Policy Context Urged for Years

For years, foreign policy experts have urged Canada and the United States to do more to address energy and climate issues in the context of far-reaching, well coordinated bilateral agreements.

A detailed report for the Canadian International Council, for example, cited "opportunities to broaden climate change and clean energy discussions," including "the potential impact of Canadian and American climate change policy on oil sand exporters."

"Canada could face challenges in making the case that the country is moving in a clean energy direction if it falls short on climate change action," said the report, published in 2010, as the Keystone controversy grew and Canada struggled with its poor image on climate change. "'Greening' Canada's energy sector is not an altruistic alternative but an initiative that makes good business sense in securing access to our only substantial energy export market," the United States.

At about the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency was urging the U.S. State Department to put a bigger frame around the Keystone XL pipeline, which was already drawing criticism from environmentalists.

"While we recognize that an objective of the applicant's proposal is to construct a pipeline to transport oil sands from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries in the United States, we believe the purpose and need to which the State Department is responding is broader," the EPA said in a 2010 letter highly critical of the project's first environmental impact analysis.

"Accordingly, EPA recommends that the State Department frame the purpose and need statement more broadly to allow for a robust analysis of options for meeting national energy and climate policy objectives."

Almost three years later, the furor over the Keystone decision is still overshadowing the two countries' overall energy and environmental relationship, said foreign policy specialists.

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