Trudeau Vows to Keep up the Fight to Sway U.S. on Merits of Keystone XL Pipeline

Trudeau Vows to Keep up the Fight to Sway U.S. on Merits of Keystone XL Pipeline
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Jan. 11, 2021. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON—Canada won't stop trying to convince Joe Biden of the merits of Keystone XL, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted Tuesday, despite reports the U.S. president-elect appears poised to sign the pipeline project's death warrant.

Trudeau shrugged off media reports that Biden intends to revoke the cross-border project's presidential permit as early as Wednesday, the day he takes the oath of office and moves into the White House.

But even the prime minister's full-throated defence of the controversial US$8-billion effort to ferry Alberta bitumen to U.S. refineries betrayed a note of resignation, focused less on what he intended to do than what he'd done already.

He'd been singing the praises of Keystone XL for more than seven years, Trudeau said, including in a phone call with Biden in the days immediately after the November election.

He said it would be Kirsten Hillman, Canada's envoy in Washington, who would be making Ottawa's case with what he described as the "highest levels'' of the Biden team.

And he acknowledged the elephant in the room: that Biden's campaign team promised back in May that it would do precisely what transition documents reviewed by The Canadian Press suggest will happen Wednesday.

"We understand, of course, that it is a commitment that ? the candidate Joe Biden made to cancel this pipeline,'' Trudeau said.

"At the same time, we continue to demonstrate the leadership that Canada has shown on fighting climate change and on ensuring energy security as a priority for North America.''

Advocates for the project, however, are clinging to hope that the ensuing outcry—the Alberta government is already threatening legal action—will prompt the Biden team to give them a chance to change the president-elect's mind.

Canada has known ever since May "that we would have to work very hard to make our case for this project,'' Hillman said in an interview Tuesday when asked about reports of the project's imminent demise.

"I actually see it as something that has been ongoing for a long time. And I'll be honest, it's still ongoing,'' she said.

"We're continuing to have these conversations, regardless of what is out there in the press, and we are still having conversations with people within the Biden team about this, even today.''

The public relations campaign also continued Tuesday as a D.C.-based strategic communications firm hired by the Alberta government released details of a recent poll aimed at gauging public attitudes toward Keystone XL in the U.S.

The online poll by JDA Frontline Partners was conducted among 1,400 respondents over a 10-day period that ended Monday. It suggests nearly half of those surveyed supported the project, while 24 percent opposed it and 25 percent said they didn't know.

The poll also suggests that compared to high-priority issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and the state of the U.S. economy, the question of Keystone XL's potential effect on climate change did not rank very high.

"Voters don't think it's an urgent thing,'' said pollster Matt George. "And in terms of potential impact, voters don't think that rescinding that permit will have a major impact on addressing climate change.''

Indeed, when informed construction on the pipeline had already begun and crossed into the U.S., nearly three-quarters of respondents—71 percent—said it should be completed.

Online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

The politically fraught project, originally proposed in 2008, aims to deliver more than 800,000 additional barrels a day of diluted bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

It has long been a linchpin in Canada's strategy for boosting fossil-fuel exports by delivering Alberta's landlocked underground energy resources to tidewater.

At the same time, it has become a lightning rod for partisan and public discord in both countries as debate continues to escalate over climate change, economic growth and society's long-standing dependence on fossil fuels.

As a result, it never found favour among the Democrats in Barack Obama's White House, which included Biden as vice-president. That administration slow-walked the approval process for the better part of eight years, much to the frustration of then-prime minister Stephen Harper, until outright rejecting it in 2015.

Canada's pitch to the Biden team has for months framed Keystone XL as a vastly different, more environmentally friendly project than the original.

In a late bid to win favour with Biden, pipeline owner TC Energy Corp. confirmed Sunday an ambitious plan to spend US$1.7 billion on a solar, wind and battery-powered operating system for the pipeline to ensure it is zero-emission by 2030.

Canada's approach to climate change more broadly has also evolved since then, Trudeau said.

"Canada has, in the intervening few years, become a global leader in the fight against climate change and moving forward in transforming our economy in important ways towards reducing emissions,'' Trudeau said.

"I trust that we will be heard, that our arguments will be considered.''

As for the question of whether an early Keystone XL decision by the Biden White House would put the Canada-U. S. relationship on an awkward footing, Hillman sounded unconcerned.

"It's important for us to be able to have a robust and mature relationship with the United States,'' she said.

"A robust, mature, and close relationship is one where you can have disagreements, and you can have them in the strongest possible terms, and you can move on, and not let those disagreements derail the entire relationship.''

By James McCarten