This is what it’s come to: On Friday, reports surfaced that Stephen Harper was so desperate for US approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, he’s even willing to use the word “climate change” in a sentence. As in, “approve this pipeline, and I’ll pretend to care about climate change.” According to the CBC, Harper wrote a letter to President Barack Obama saying, in essence, that he’s got a deal for him: “Joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector” by both countries in exchange for going ahead on Keystone XL. In short, the prime minister is trying to defuse criticism of the tar sands for being more CO2-intensive than other forms of oil.
It’s a hell of a deal for the president: You see, Democrats only started worrying about climate change in the fall of 2013 and not in, say, 2006 when Harper was elected and An Inconvenient Truth came out. It’s not like Harper could have made this deal at any time in the last two years, nor could he pursue emissions reductions because it’s simply the right thing to do. No, it has to be as part of the Keystone XL project.
A moment’s thought exposes just how little Harper is actually offering Obama here. First of all, this is the flip side to Harper’s own rhetoric that we should stop hurting the tar sands’ feelings because they only represent less than one-tenth of a percent of global emissions. The obvious corollary to this, if we take Harper at his word, is that nothing Canada is offering would move the needle on CO2, anyway.
Then there’s the more obvious fact that American politicians don’t care about Canadian CO2 emissions in any real sense. They don’t like that the tar sands are an emissions-heavy form of oil, but they’re more concerned with regulating for more efficient cars out of Detroit and shutting down the most polluting coal-fired power plants in the US Southeast. Not a single Democrat’s re-election hinges on whether Canada’s CO2 emissions go down. (And the Republicans? Oh ho ho ho, you funny person, you.)
Meanwhile, American business has basically moved on from Keystone XL, seeking other more discreet ways to move oil around the continent. American oil refiners are mostly going to get the parts of the pipeline they want, anyway: Importantly, the pipeline that connects to the rapidly growing production in North Dakota to refineries in Texas doesn’t need Obama’s approval. As for Canadian producers, they’ll have to rely on trains or pipelines to either coast, from where we’ll put our oil on tankers. It’s temporarily bad news for tar sands producers, who are going to keep eating prices lower than they’d prefer (but which are still wildly profitable by any objective measure).
So we’ve got the Canadian prime minister offering the American president something he doesn’t want (Keystone XL) to get something he doesn’t need (Canadian CO2 reductions), and nobody on his side (not US oil refiners, anyway) is clamoring for either. Which is all a long way of saying that there are many things that Stephen Harper is good at, politically, but negotiation has never been one of them.