Canada watching Obama’s next moves on oilsands imports, climate action

Blog - Nov. 16, 2012 - By Nathan Lemphers

If Canadians could have voted in the U.S. presidential election, the majority likely would have re-elected Barack Obama, according to polling from the BBC on global attitudes toward the two candidates. But now that President Obama has returned to the White House, many Canadians are wondering what his second term could mean for Canadian interests, particularly oilsands development.

Not surprisingly, there is little consensus among the pundits. Some predict that, with the spectre of re-election behind him, Obama’s last four years will be not filled with the same degree of moderation and political maneuvering that marked his first four years. Much of the speculation has focused on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oilsands bitumen from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries for export. Some argue that Obama ought to refuse a presidential permit for the project as a nod to his supporters and to demonstrate his commitment to environmental protection and climate action. Others say that approving Keystone XL would be a strategic move, allowing the President to realize his campaign pledge of creating jobs and strengthening the economy. 

I spent the past week meeting with congressional offices, oil industry representatives, environmental groups and various think tanks in Washington, D.C., updating them on our thoughts on the latest oilsands developments in Canada and hearing their opinions on what Obama’s election means for the oilsands.

What I heard in Washington

The “fiscal cliff” looming over the U.S. Congress as the end-of-year deadline approaches is the talk of the town. Meanwhile, jobs and the economy remain very strong concerns for Americans of all stripes and sectors.

Nestled in between all these apocalyptic prognostications, was Hurricane Sandy. The so-called “Frankenstorm,” which killed 199 people and caused $50 billion in damages and business losses, was arguably made much worse because of climate change. The storm caused Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican and New York’s billionaire mayor, to come out and endorse Obama due to the president’s past and pledged climate action.

President Obama walks into his first press conference after being re-elected. Photo: courtesy of the White House.  Earlier this week, in his first press conference since June, Obama stated that taking action on climate change at the expense of the economy is a non-starter. However, he tempered that assertion, saying, “If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.”

Combining green jobs, economic growth and climate action is good way to stimulate growth. A report released last month by the U.S. Economic Policy Institute found that “greener industries tend to grow faster than the overall economy,” and noted that states with a greater proportion of green jobs (e.g. California, New York and Texas) have proven to have more resilient economies through the current economic downturn.

Opponents of Keystone XL take action

The data show that taking climate action makes sound economic sense. Obama’s statements show he sees this link, but he needs to know Americans are behind him.

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline gathered in Washington last November and are returning this weekend. Photo: courtesy of Josh Lopez.To get a sense of this, the President need only look out his bedroom window this weekend to see the thousands of Americans surrounding the White House and voicing their concern over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Organized by, the group’s uniting concern is that the pipeline would increase production of high-carbon bitumen from the oilsands at a time when the world needs to be rapidly reducing its dependence on fossil fuels.  

The group marching on Washington has a point. As the fiscal cliff looms and America begins to come to terms with the costs of climate inaction — not only from extreme weather events but also from lost opportunities in a growing clean energy economy — approving a high-carbon oilsands pipeline is not a responsible decision.

Reasons to reject Keystone XL

There are three good reasons for the president to reject the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline:

  1. KXL would accelerate oilsands production. Given the considerable uncertainty for Pacific-bound or West-to-East pipelines in Canada, approving the KXL pipeline would directly cause increased oilsands production and increased carbon emissions.
  2. The oilsands are approaching or exceeding environmental limits. Recent modelling by Shell Canada shows that oilsands development will soon reach limits on local pollution recently set by the Alberta government. KXL would hasten reaching these limits at a time when regulators are already failing to ensure environmental protection in the oilsands region.
  3. There are better ways to create jobs and boost the economy than pipelines. More jobs are created per dollar invested in green jobs than in the oilsands or pipeline industry.

In this context, and until industry demonstrates its ability to develop the oilsands within environmental limits, further expansion of oilsands production or pipelines can't be considered responsible.  

Along with the rest of the world, Canadians are watching to see what Obama will do in the next few years, with an eye to how it could shape our own economic and environmental performance. At the outset of his second term, the president has an opportunity to set a course for the U.S. economy that sees its future in clean energy and climate leadership — a course that would establish an enduring legacy for his presidency.

Nathan Lemphers
Nathan Lemphers

Nathan Lemphers was a senior policy analyst in the Pembina Institute's oilsands program, until 2013.


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