Why a pipeline debate won’t go away

A recap of the latest Maclean’s-CPAC panel on Canada-U.S. relations

Bloomberg Photo/Scott Dalton

Bloomberg Photo/Scott Dalton

Seven people on a stage will disagree a lot. If they’re talking Keystone XL, and whatever the pipeline’s fate means for Canada-U.S. relations, consensus won’t come easy. Someone will offer that the proposal’s underlying economic argument is strong and environmental concerns are misplaced, and others will disagree; someone will argue that fossil-fuel politics don’t mean much to day-to-day friendships and business relationships across the 49th parallel, and someone’s bound to think otherwise; and someone else will insist that everyone should stop dwelling on this pipeline already.

On March 3, in the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s veto of Keystone, Maclean’s and CPAC brought together a bi-national panel to talk about the future of Canada-U.S. relations with or without the pipeline. CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen moderated the panel, which featured Paul Wells, Maclean’s political editor; Luiza Ch. Savage, Maclean’s Washington bureau chief; Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States; Sen. John Hoeven, of North Dakota; Former Rep. Bill Owens, of New York; and Danielle Droitsch, Canada Project Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Differences of opinion aside, most panellists agreed about one thing: The leaders who live at 24 Sussex Dr. and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. don’t get along right now, and that’s important. Maclean’s political editor Paul Wells, right at the top of the night, was first to mention Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Obama’s relationship—now widely agreed to be not wonderful, at least compared to certain of their predecessors.

Recall the noise made in the wake of Obama’s recent Keystone veto by Allan Gotlieb, Canada’s man in Washington for most of the 1980s, including the period when Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney got on famously. The so-called elder statesman of Canadian diplomats called the Harper-Obama relationship “as cool as I ever remember.”

That lack of camaraderie, said Maclean’s Washington bureau chief Luiza Ch. Savage, means the leaders can’t work on the big things, such as climate change, which Danielle Droitsch, the Canada Project Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said would be a useful place to start.

 Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador at the embassy next door to the Newseum where the panel unfolded, insisted that Canadians are willing to work co-operatively with Americans on mutual climate action—as when the two countries tackled acid rain during Gotlieb’s time in the same role. But Doer said there’s “no table,” i.e., no place to hash things out, despite a Canadian offer to find one and sit down. (“Try IKEA,” quipped Wells, to laughter from the audience.)

The American politicians on the panel, a Republican and a Democrat, disagreed—surprise!—about the pipeline’s greater meaning to cross-border relations. John Bernstein, the chief of staff to pro-Keystone Republican Sen. John Hoeven from North Dakota (and a last-minute fill-in for the under-the-weather senator), expressed some angst about lingering effects of pipeline politics.

No way will the pipeline’s fate mean that much, rebutted former Rep. Bill Owens, a pro-Keystone Democrat from New York whose old district borders Canada.
Eventually, the panel moved beyond Keystone—but the conversation returned repeatedly to the fraught pipeline. Doer, whose most recent letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging Keystone’s approval was described by our magazine and others as “terse,” implored his panellists to agree that pipelines are safer than railways. He raised the spectre of a massive rail disaster—a Lac-Mégantic for the United States—as a moment that could, one scary day in the future, have anti-Keystone Americans rethinking their logic. Doer pointed to last week’s fireball in West Virginia that followed a derailment as a case in point. Reporting like this, from the New York Times after the West Virginia incident, tends to backstop Doer’s view:

Spills and fires in derailments have prompted concerns about the safety of transporting oil by rail. In 2011, the American Association of Railroads required that new tanker cars meet higher standards to resist rupture in accidents, though it did not require refitting older cars. CSX said the tankers in Monday’s crash had all been built to the new specifications.

Droitsch, who’s based in D.C. but lived in Canmore, Alta., for five years and knows the landscape north of the border, disagreed with any suggestion that a pipeline would remove oil from rails. Her NDRC colleague, Andrew Swift, made the same point in testimony to the House of Representatives in 2013 that differentiated between Bakken crude from North Dakota—where the trains in West Virginia and Lac-Mégantic originated—and that from northern Alberta:

From 2009 to 2013, transport of oil by rail in North Dakota increased from a few thousand barrels a day to over half a million. In January 2013, over two thirds of light crude produced in North Dakota was transported to refineries by rail. As they turned to rail, domestic light oil producers have even rejected major pipeline proposals, including Oenok’s 200,000-barrel-per-day Bakken pipeline. When analysts talk about the upsurge of rail transport in the United States and southern Canada, this is what they’re referring to—an enormous expansion of light crude from the Bakken.

However, a similar expansion has not occurred in Alberta’s tar sands, despite the need for additional transportation infrastructure. Data from the Energy Information Administration show that no more than 21,000 bpd of Canadian tar sands and conventional heavy crude—or less than 1 per cent of production—entered the United States via rail on its way to refinery markets in the Gulf Coast by rail in December 2012.

Doer fired back that oil exports by rail have increased 10-fold in recent years. Indeed, National Energy Board data track a substantial increase in crude exports by rail since 2012.

Quarter Volume (m³) Volume (m³ per day) Volume (bbl) Volume (bbl per day)
Q1 2012 (Jan-Mar) 231,086 2,539 1,454,191 15,980
Q2 2012 (Apr-Jun) 461,398 5,070 2,903,512 31,907
Q3 2012 (Jul-Sep) 837,081 9,099 5,267,630 57,257
Q4 2012 (Oct-Dec) 1,166,114 12,675 7,338,188 79,763
Q1 2013 (Jan-Mar) 1,510,737 16,786 9,506,850 105,632
Q2 2013 (Apr-Jun) 1,929,735 21,206 12,143,544 133,446
Q3 2013 (Jul-Sep) 1,809,418 19,668 11,386,409 123,765
Q4 2013 (Oct-Dec) 2,177,309 23,666 13,701,495 148,929
Q1 2014 (Jan-Mar) 2,363,453 26,261 14,872,875 165,254
Q2 2014 (Apr-Jun) 2,358,023 25,912 14,838,705 163,063
Q3 2014 (Jul-Sep) 2,661,655 28,931 16,749,414 182,059

The gregarious Doer and the data-driven Droitsch found little common ground. They even disagreed about the prospect of agreeing to disagree, but such is the clash between the Harper government’s strident lobbying for Keystone and environmental critics’ refusal to buy the hype.

Perhaps the pair will sit on the same stage in a few years and agree to agree about what Doer predicted would be the next big continental debate: water.

Below is the full recap of our panel:


Why a pipeline debate won’t go away

  1. Wasrren Buffett has just pulled the rug out from under Obama by saying the “O” should not have vetoed Keystone.

    And why has Buffett’s tune changed?

    Becauser he’s realized Berkshire can make way more money owning oil sands production (Suncor shareholder 12th largest) than it can by hauling it by train on BNSF.

    When Keystone surfaces next in Congress and in the Senate Buffett’s signal to Democrats is crystal clear, pass Keystone, even if Obama has to be overruled.

    Remeber, Buffett and his companies donate more to all Democrats individually and as a party than anyone else.

    Party? Obama’s is over.

  2. This is not a pipeline debate per se, it is an unregulated oil transportation debate.
    Canada & the US have a choice.
    Multiple train derailments OR less frequent but 3X larger pipeline spills ( average 800,000 gal.)
    March 9,2015- Murphy Oil pipeline spills 850,000 gal into remote Alberta.
    By TransCanadas’ own report ‘Analysis of Frequency, Magnitutde of Keystone pipeline Spills’ just 12 spills over the 50 year life of the pipe……that’s 9,600,000 gal into the environment…..if you however use the historical data the US environment would have to deal with 91 spills/50 years….and TCs’ estimate that a 50% spill will take a minimum of 30 minutes to stop the flow and a flow rate of 555barrels/min…even their estimate of 90 days to detect a 1.5% leak is not comforting.
    People get to choose what poison they should have to swallow for corporations to make $BILLIONS$

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