Op-Ed: Canada Must Change XL Pipeline Debate

Read Murray Mandryk's Regina Leader-Post column, "Let's Pipe Down XL Debate"

President Obama rejected Wednesday a proposal to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast — generating intense debate in both countries. Murray Mandryk, political columnist for the Leader-Post of Sasketchewan, offers a Canadian perspective on the controversy.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Last week, President Obama rejected the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas. Opponents argued that burning off the vast deposits would doom any chance to stop global warming and that the route across Nebraska's Ogallala Aquifer was too risky. Supporters said the pipeline would create thousands of jobs and reduce reliance on Middle East oil. As you can imagine, there's controversy in Canada too.

Op-ed columnist Murray Mandryk wrote: It's time for Canadians to move pass talking points and have thoughtful dialogue on better addressing oil policy issues. Well, nobody believes the debate over the XL pipeline is over, so how should we see last week's decision? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. You can also find a link to Murray Mandryk's column there.

Murray Mandryk is political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post. His op-ed ran in that newspaper on Saturday. And he joins us now from studios at the CBC. Nice to have you on the TALK OF THE NATION today.

MURRAY MANDRYK: Well, thank you, sir. Nice meeting you.

CONAN: And President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline project last week, or at least seemed to. You say this is far from being over.

MANDRYK: Well, I think there's people in your country that will have a far better grasp of the political nuance than maybe I would. But I think there's a lot of people in Canada that anticipate that it will come back in 2013 once things cool down. It's largely seen here from those that can take a breath and get past their own politics to be a strategic political move in relation to your vote coming this fall. Everyone fully anticipates that the pipeline will go ahead because it makes sense on a lot of levels from a Canadian perspective and probably from an American one as well.

However, there are any number of controversies related to this and inconsistencies in policy in both countries, not the least of which Canadians, for all our reputation of being nice and reasonable, we sometimes like to have our cake and eat it too.

CONAN: Well, fill us in, a little background on the Canadian political argument. Of course this is a policy that's been very popular with the conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper.

MANDRYK: It is very popular. And much like your country, you really can't talk about a Canadian perspective and have anything that's terribly uniform, sir. In our country, the problem being is that, you know, we are as divided, as I'm sure Americans are, on a lot of issues, up to including this one. And we're also regionally divided because eastern Canada isn't as dependent on oil production as a revenue source. In Canada it's a little bit different perhaps than in the United States because the provinces, equivalent to the state government, obviously has control over the resources - its natural resources.

So for provinces like Saskatchewan, where I live, or next door in Alberta, it's a really big deal to produce oil and a really big deal to export it, particularly to the United States, which would be our preferential export. The difficulty being is that, particularly in Alberta, they're running headlong into the environmentalist lobby. It's not just an American environmentalist lobby, but I think our federal Canadian government and perhaps a couple of our provincial Canadian governments want to categorize it that way, as too much influenced by the American left.

In reality, though, what is of concern, though, is just being able to get our oil to market. As I say, the preferential market would obviously be the United States, but there's a second pipeline through northern B.C. called the Northern Gateway pipeline that Canadians are proposing - Canadian oil industry is proposing as perhaps an alternative to feed Asian markets - China and such - if this pipeline doesn't go through in terms of the Keystone development.

So there is a lot of layers and nuance to this argument that makes it not easy to digest in one whole sitting. You almost have to - you have to take this one in in bite-size pieces.

CONAN: That pipeline - proposed pipeline to the Pacific Coast, if my grasp of geography is correct, would have to go across the Rocky Mountains, through a lot of wilderness area, and I would assume some areas run by native - operated by Native American tribes.

MANDRYK: You're absolutely right. And the first station plan right is an incredibly important issue in Canada, and right now they're in the process of hearings. And it is those hearings that incited the Canadian natural resources minister to start talking about foreign-backed environmental radicals who basically are trying to kibosh is - our Canadian government sees it - this northern pipeline.

The fact of the matter is, there's probably many of us who really wonder the very question that you're asking, why on God's green Earth and, you know, quite literally on God's green Earth, do you want to put a pipeline through the Rocky Mountains in general because it's difficult, but pristine wilderness like this through First Nations? The company involved, Enbridge, hasn't exactly had a perfect record on environmental spills, as the people of Wisconsin might attest in 2007. In fact, I think in the last decade, it's had something like 804 spills of 200,000 barrels of oil through its pipelines, et cetera, and its other enterprises.

That said, I'm not anti-pipeline. I'm probably like a lot of Americans and certainly a lot of Canadians that obviously see that this is the best way to generally move oil. It certainly beats - it's certainly better than tanking it through - with cars and tanker trucks that are going to possibly have more of an environmental disaster and are more likely to because of the nature. In relative terms, it's probably a reasonably safe way to go about it. But in doing so, we do have to sort out all this environmental differences; our own in this country and certainly with Keystone XL, related to the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, the sand hills there, and different landownership issues, et cetera. And it's difficult, of course, force it through, because of this situation in America where it has become a bit of a political football. It's now becoming a bit of a political football up here.

And as I think you pointed out, the conservative government is pushing it through because they particularly like the idea of this fight for whatever reason in terms of supporting this base, and there's certainly concern about the economic argument. But I don't think enough people are sitting back and taking a look at the Obama administration and understanding that this is a pretty pragmatic government as well. Probably, it's going to come to the conclusion that once the smoke clears, it's in America's best interests, obviously, to have a pipeline through here too.

CONAN: And one of the reasons people got themselves arrested in front of the White House last fall was the argument that if we start to tap this vast resource of the Alberta oil sands or tar sands - and I guess those have controversial terms, too, whichever one you use - but if we start to tap these vast reserves, if we burn those - that petroleum, the odds of fighting back global warming are over. It's dead.

MANDRYK: Well, here we run into a bit of difficulty, one of which is the fact that the feeding government isn't - is wholeheartedly - the current Canadian government isn't wholeheartedly supportive of a notion that global warming is man-made, let alone it'll be caused by the tar sands. They embarked kind of very aggressive program called Ethical Oil, and one of the more controversial right-wing authors in this country has even penned a book under that name. And the premise of it basically being is two things, one of which is that the argument that tar sands oil, oil - sands oil isn't as dirty as some claim.

And early in my career, I actually work up in the area, in Fort McMurray, and I can attest that, no, it's really not in terms of its environmental impact. Yes, it's problematic, but it is a mining venture. And from that perspective, it's not as damaging as some might think. There's certainly huge issues related to underground water supplies, et cetera, other issues, but there's a really good argument that the whole notion of its environmental damage has been vastly overblown, particularly its impact on global warming. When you can consider all the other things that we do in both our nations and China, like burning coal and such. There's more of a direct impact.

And obviously, the secondary issue related to this is sort of the political end in terms of, well, you know, where is this going to take us politically. And I think that's probably fitting into the Stephen Harper Canadian government - the conservative government in Canada - is to what points they want to make in terms of bringing their own agenda forward. So it's, I guess, they say in the movies in terms of some of the protesters, it gets complicated.

CONAN: Now, let's see. We go to a caller. Edward is on the line, calling us from Maui in Hawaii.

EDWARD: Hey. Aloha and happy New Year.

CONAN: Happy New Year.

EDWARD: Say, look, you know, in the last - I don't know how many years it's been since I've been aware of Canadian tar sands, and then in the last year or so since this pipeline has come up. I believe that a lot of what I originally heard of the - in the last year or two was that, as your guest have had said, Canada's interest is marketing their oil. He also speaks of America's best interest. I'm trying to figure out what those are. I know that Canada is improving their pipeline to their coast so they can ship to China. And I know they want to run a long pipeline across our country, and I think the ecological issues can be addressed. But I'm trying to figure out what's in it for us? They want to get access to Gulf Coast ports to ship that oil to other parts of the world.

That oil isn't going to end up into our own pipeline. I mean, heck, we're shipping excess fuel off of the continent right now 'cause we have oversupply. What's it - what are America's interests besides what's realistically estimated at around 6,000 jobs for a short period, and then there's the maintenance jobs. I'm assuming there's going to be a tariff per barrel that goes through there. But what exactly, in your guest's opinion, are America's best interest? The threat of not having tankers going along our coast and leaking oil or trainloads through them? Because it really sounds like it's in the best interest of Canada. But what's our interest?

CONAN: Murray Mandryk, from the Canadian point of view, what's the argument they make when they go to Washington?

MANDRYK: Oh, certainly. It was the second point that I got a little lost in thought and didn't get to, but it's related to that Ethical Oil question from the Canadian perspective. And simply put this way: Do you want to buy your oil from sometimes unstable Middle Eastern dictatorships? We all know what's happening in the world of the Arab Spring. We all know what's happening in other countries. We know the history with your country related to 9/11 and the difficulties with the Middle East. We know what's going on in Iran and what's going on with Iran right now and what's going on in Iraq. We know the problems related to dealing with Middle Eastern nations. Do you want to deal with Middle Eastern nations or who we like to consider America's best neighbor, which is Canada?

Now this is sort of the argument from the Canadian government perspective, not necessarily mine. But I'm actually very sympathetic to that argument because we have the longest unguarded border in the world. We have the best trade relationship in the world. There's no particular reason why us selling oil to Americans can't be beneficial to both of us. However, within that, I think there's a couple of things as Canadians and Americans, but certainly as Canadians, which I'll speak for, that we have to be respectful of - one of which, obviously, is your environmental process. And we can't just be mad and basically say, well, because this isn't in our economic best interest, we have to say we're being picked on or that the American Obama government is somehow doing us an unjust turn.

There may be political reasons behind the decisions related to the Obama not - government not approving the permit. But there are certainly political decisions behind the U.S. Congress, dominated by Republicans - at least from our standpoint, there seems to be - of imposing the arbitrary February deadline when they've going through this process for a number of years.

CONAN: We're talking...

MANDRYK: It's not like TransCanada pipeline hasn't exactly been in the middle of these hearings forever.

CONAN: We're talking with Murray Mandryk, political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post on the Opinion Page this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. There was another point mentioned there, and that is this oil would be refined on the Texas Gulf Coast and, a lot of people say, then shipped to export to other countries. It would not go ultimately to the American market.

MANDRYK: Well, that's quite possible. That - your - I'm venturing out of my area of expertise in relation to this. Generally speaking, in Canada we see the oil being exported for - to U.S. for domestic use and domestic consumption. And certainly, you have a market for it. The tar sands as it's called or the oil sands is - I think they prefer to call it for politically correct reasons of being the product more saleable - is a vast resource that actually has great potential in terms of our fossil fuel needs going forward in the future. And I guess there's an interesting question from the Canadian perspective, is that why would be shipping it from that distance when we could probably refine all of it here.

CONAN: Well, that's what Gavin(ph) asks in an email from Norman, Oklahoma: It makes sense, on a lot of levels, your guest says. Why does the oil need to be processed 1,700 miles from where it's extracted?

MANDRYK: Well, you have to understand Canadians sometimes. I think some days I think we just would rather ship raw products and raw resources than refine them ourselves. And it's a century's old frustration for western Canadians who have long been viewed as the hewers of wood and drawers of water, compared with our eastern counterparts. And it's certainly a longstanding frustration, but the fact of the matter is one of the reasons why we do it this way, it's just more economically efficient.

If you have the refineries near New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Texas, and they're existing and they met the environmental approval in those particular jurisdictions, it's more cost efficient than building them up here. Sometimes, we face with the reality of something like Hurricane Katrina that comes along that not only shuts down, basically, your oil production but ours as well. So there are deep considerations here to be made, but this is somewhat the longstanding nature of Canada that's basically been - always deemed itself a bit more of a supplier of raw material than manufacturing. A lot of it has to do with our population base and our inability to do things like this cheaply to go in our climate.

CONAN: Murray Mandryk, thanks very much for your time today.

MANDRYK: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Murray Mandryk, political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post, with us from CBC studios in Regina. You could find a link to his column at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, 10 years after the sex abuse scandal rocked the Catholic Church, what's changed? Join us for that. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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