Commentary from Colin Robertson

Keystone XL has sucked up too much energy; let’s move on

by Colin Robertson

The Globe and Mail
March 3, 2015 

For six years – half the life of the Harper government – Keystone XL has dominated Canada-U.S. relations. It has sucked up energies better devoted to advancing our regulatory and border co-operation initiatives, including those to ease pre-clearance and to set common standards.

XL cast a shadow over collaboration in the Arctic where we might have followed the example of the Nordic nations and shared with the Americans a four year co-chair of the Arctic Council.

Ironically, Canadian oil is flowing into the United States as never before at volumes almost 50 per cent greater than all OPEC countries combined. Most of it goes by pipeline – by far the safest mode of transport – by tanker, barge, road and, increasingly, by rail.

The “Go With Canada” arguments in favour of the pipeline remain sound. The geopolitical argument bears repeating: Why would you treat a reliable ally, sourcing your essential strategic commodity, worse than despotic regimes that fund and furnish Islamist terrorism? Alberta, Premier Jim Prentice observed, is also the only major foreign supplier of oil with a carbon-pricing scheme. And the vast majority of the refined product stays in the United States.

As President, Barack Obama stands singular in his failure to appreciate the strategic importance of Canada to the United States. The XL veto will solidify his position with environmentalists. Those with big wallets likely will open them to his presidential library. As another Chicago South Sider, the great (and fictional) Mr. Dooley, long ago observed “politics ain’t bean bag.”

If the Obama administration has been small in its treatment of Canada, too often the Harper government has behaved stupidly in its dealings with the United States.

It starts, as Brian Mulroney well understood, with the development of a strong personal relationship with the president. Unfortunately, both Stephen Harper and Barack Obama are “cat” persons – their relationship is not the camaraderie that characterized Reagan-Mulroney or Clinton-Chrétien.

Mr. Harper should have recognized that on the environment, President Obama has religion. Apparently oblivious to the signals around potential compromises on climate from U.S. Ambassadors David Jacobson and Bruce Heyman, the Harper government forgot that ours is an asymmetrical relationship: the United States matters more to Canada, than we do to them.

The U.S. pays us little attention not because they don’t like us – they do (more than we like them) – but because they bear global responsibilities. Our contentious issues – energy and environment, trade and economics – don’t have the same weight as war and peace.

With 9/11, we both invested in a North American security perimeter based on the principle of “inspected once, cleared twice.” Faster sea and land lanes mean that our West Coast ports – Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C. – benefit from in-transit trade.

But despite U.S. protests, we recently passed legislation specifically preventing in-transit inspection for counterfeit goods. Particularly galling to the Americans was Industry Minister James Moore’s declaration that “it’s a bit of stretch” to ask Canadians to act as a “border filter for all goods destined for the U.S. market.” Yet that is precisely what perimeter security and “inspected once, cleared twice” is all about.

The takeaway from these incidents is that when small meets stupid we both lose.

Accommodation on all of these issues is doable – something our ambassadors, premiers and governors understand and what business expects of government.

On climate, Gary Doer, Canadian Ambassador to the U.S., has argued for establishing shared standards for emissions, fracking, hydro and the development of a North American energy portrait for strategic infrastructure investments.

To increase trade and investment, Ambassador Heyman has invited U.S. governors to visit and, in two weeks, he co-hosts a D.C. summit to increase joint investment.

Our premiers meet their American and Mexican counterparts this October in their first-ever summit. They will focus on the practical: infrastructure and supply-chain management, education and energy technology. The states and provinces are the best level to address procurement protectionism and to recognize professional accreditation, thus meeting North American labour-market needs.

The tensions afflicting our two national governments are but one level in the multidimensional chessboards of Canada-U.S. relations. We are allied on the increasingly big issues of peace and security. The only damper on the annual migration south of Canadian snowbirds is the plunging Canadian dollar.

Former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz often compares managing Canada-U.S. relations to carefully tending the garden. Mr. Harper and Mr. Obama both need lessons in gardening. Now let’s leave XL behind us and focus on making North America a sustainable, economic powerhouse.


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