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Obama's Keystone XL delay forces Harper into the "choose first" hot seat

You first, Stephen.

Yet another procedural delay means US President Barack Obama won't have to decide on the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline until sometime next year. Before then, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper must decide on one -- and possibly two -- bitterly-fought and politically-toxic tar sands pipelines in his own nation:

  • by June 2014, Enbridge Northern Gateway to Kitimat BC.
  • by March 2015, Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain to Port of Vancouver, BC.

Back when Obama had to decide first, Harper famously chided the US President for delaying his own politically-toxic tar sands pipeline decision by calling it a "complete no-brainer". One has to wonder if Harper still feels that way now that he has to lead off?

The sudden role reversal leaves Harper in a much more difficult position. If Obama had decided on Keystone XL (KXL) first, Harper could have gained some welcome cover no matter which way the decision went.

  • "NO" TO KXL -- If Obama had said "no" first, then Harper could declare a "crisis" and argue that Canadians can't rely on Americans      anymore now that they turned their back on us … that Canadians must take their destiny into their own hands … that all Canadians must make now sacrifices for the greater good. That storyline of national rejection could have helped him override some of the fierce objections towards Northern Gateway.
  • "YES" TO KXL -- If, on the other hand, Obama had said "yes" first, then Harper could avoid trying to force Northern Gateway onto a currently hostile BC. He could point out that KXL approval gives the tar sands industry enough new pipe capacity that Enbridge could have more time to work to gain the needed social license for Northern Gateway.

Any such hope of political cover or advantage for Harper seems to have slipped away with the KXL delay.

Now it is Obama's turn to sit back and watch from the sidelines. Obama, not Harper, will get to triangulate and gain political cover from the other's decision. Maybe this was Obama's plan all along.

"Better to delay..."

For Harper, being forced to lead off with a decision on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to the BC coast is an absolutely miserable scenario. The bitterly-opposed pipeline clearly lacks the required "social license" in BC at this point. And the rapidly approaching June deadline leaves Harper too little time to change the disastrous politics surrounding this pipeline before he has to decide.

The list of people in BC who are outraged by this proposed pipeline is long and daunting. It includes dozens of fiercely opposed First Nations whose unceded traditional territory covers big swaths of the pipeline route. Even the tidewater town, Kitimat, that would reap large economic benefits by being the terminal city defied expectations and voted to reject the pipeline.

Sensing an epic disaster in the making, the normally pro-tar-sands Vancouver Sun just penned an editorial titled: "It’s time for sober second thought on megaproject." It is a plea for Harper to delay the decision:

"Northern Gateway, regardless of its strategic economic importance to Canada, simply does not have the social licence necessary to proceed, at least, not for now. Forcing the project through would only be a provocation, triggering legal action and possibly blockades and civil disobedience along the pipeline route."

... But why must the matter be decided by June?

... Better to delay than reject. Better to delay than confront.

Hoisted with his own petard

Delay may be politically beneficial for Obama, but for Harper it promises to be politically painful.

Harper has repeatedly railed against delay on pipeline decisions. He even pushed through wholesale changes in Canadian laws to force a "15-month maximum" limit for decisions on pipelines and major infrastructure projects. He also shifted final decision making over to his own federal cabinet.

Harper's new rules require him to decide by June on Enbridge Northern Gateway and then by March for Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain.

Three miserable options

What will Harper decide on Enbridge Northern Gateway? All three options appear politically painful:

  1. "DELAY" -- As discussed above, "delay" means walking back his new laws and promises to the tar sands industry. It means admitting that tar sands pipelines are often deeply unpopular and that Obama's preference for "delay" looks a lot more reasonable. Hardly the "complete no-brainer" message Harper was selling, but the downsides to "delay" are certainly looking less painful for him than the other two options.
  2. "YES" -- Approval at this point would be like kicking a hornets' nest. It would be a direct "provocation" that would most likely set off a      firestorm of protests, lawsuits and bitter recrimination that could shape the political fortunes of Conservatives in BC for years to come. Albertans remember well the hostility they felt when outsiders tried to force the National Energy Program on them without their consent. With the shoe on the other foot now it will be interesting to see if Harper and Alberta choose to step wisely. I doubt even Enbridge wants to try to force their pipeline on British Columbians without having time to gain a lot more social license for it first. And the tar sands industry as a whole has got to be nervous about the negative impact of such a bitterly fought battle playing out daily in the headlines.
  3. "NO" -- Denial of Northern Gateway project would avoid the political costs of ramming through an unpopular pipeline. But it would also be hard to reconcile with Harper's insistence that his government wouldn't take "no for an answer" from Obama on KXL. If Harper says "no" then certainly Obama could too, eh?

Obama, by going second, stands to gain from any of those decisions. Harper, by going first, stands to lose from all three. His political lose-lose-lose decision on Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline is just weeks away.  

Any guesses?

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