Canada is counting on its oil sands for sustained economic growth for the next few decades, but first it needs a reliable customer — preferably the United States.
Canadian officials are in Washington again this week pressuring the Obama administration to approve the long-awaited Keystone XL pipeline, a massive, $7 billion project that would carry crude oil from Alberta through the U.S. to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford said that a White House rejection of the project would become a significant thorn in relations between the two nations. This is her fourth trip to lobby for the project, and other Canadian officials also have come to Washington in recent months to make their case.
The Obama administration has delayed a decision on the project for more than four years; one is expected this summer after the State Department finalizes its environmental review.
A draft of that report found that the Canadian oil is likely to be used somewhere — if not in the U.S., then in China or India.
Officials with TransCanada Corp., the company proposing the pipeline, also are in Washington this week to make that very argument, casting Alberta's abundance of energy as the cornerstone of their nation's future growth.
"The oil sands are truly the economic engine that will drive Canada's economy for the next 50 years," said Alexander Pourbaix, president of energy and oil pipelines for TransCanada, in testimony Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and power.
The subcommittee met to review the "Northern Route Approval Act," a bill that would take the Keystone decision out of Mr. Obama's hands and give all authority to Congress.
The measure, while symbolic, has virtually no chance of becoming law. Even if it clears the Senate — a possibility, given the strong, growing bipartisan support for Keystone — it almost certainly would be vetoed by the president.
Meanwhile, the Keystone debate has boiled down to two main issues: the jobs it will create and the effect it will have on climate change.
"The benefits of this project are too great to allow it to be derailed by environmental extremism," said David Mallino Jr., legislative director the Laborers' International Union of North America, just one of the labor groups that stand to benefit from the thousands of jobs Keystone will create.
"This project is not just a pipeline, it is a lifeline," Mr. Mallino said, adding that the construction sector he represents faces one of the most stubbornly high jobless rates in the American economy.
But the environmental movement and many Democrats in Congress still bitterly oppose the project and believe those economic benefits don't outweigh the carbon footprint of more Canadian crude oil development.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and vocal opponent of Keystone, accused Republicans of doing favors for the oil and gas industry by seeking to rewrite law to approve the pipeline while ignoring carbon emissions.
"The oil people get special treatment. The people who care about climate change don't even get the chance to be heard from," he said.
Some Canadians are disputing the notion that Canadian crude will be developed and used somewhere, regardless of what Mr. Obama decides to do. They argue the Keystone decision truly will have a significant impact on global carbon emissions.
Mark Jaccard, a professor and research director at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, said that there's mounting opposition to the project in his province.
Pipelines from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean, needed to send the oil to Asian markets via British Columbia, are by no means a sure thing, Mr. Jaccard he said.
"If we ask if denial of Keystone will slow oil sands development and the carbon it causes, the answer is a resounding yes," he told the subcommittee in testimony Wednesday.
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