The U.S. State Department’s decision, supported by President Barack Obama, to send the Keystone XL pipeline back for further public review will have Canadian oil interests and commentators clamouring about how this means we really do need to send oil to Asia. But what more can the oil industry and Prime Minister Stephen Harper really do to achieve that? Not much.

OMG, To Asia with Oil!

In the Vancouver Sun: A spokeswoman for Harper said Thursday that if Keystone were to be delayed or lost, the government would continue to focus on exporting crude to Asian markets.”Canada will be looking for a buyer,” spokeswoman Sara McIntyre said.

In the Globe and Mail: William Robson, president of C.D. Howe Institute, an economic think tank[:] “We do want to make sure we aren’t hostage just to [the US] market because they don’t treat us as nicely as their self-interest suggests they should,”[…] And that will mean pushing ahead with the Gateway pipeline to move oil sands crude to the West Coast and beyond, to markets such as oil-hungry China, he said.

From ReutersAsked whether the Keystone delay might accelerate efforts to look for Pacific markets for tar sands crude, [Prime Minister Harper’s spokesperson] told reporters: “It could be part of the discussions.”

Claims of Urgency Aren’t New

Federal government and commentator support for Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, and West Coast exports  of oil in general, is not new.

  • Stephen Harper’s Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver has long cited a need to send oil to Asia, explicitly supporting Northern Gateway.
  • Alberta’s former Energy Minister Ron Liepert often seemed apoplectic about sending oil to Asia, here saying Chinese investors wonder why “we don’t just plow a line to the west coast.”
  • Scotiabank analyst Patricia Mohr got some good coverage for a report that claimed projects like Gateway are “vital for the Canadian economy.”

The chorus citing economic imperatives to send oil to Asia sounds a lot like the chorus that before today claimed economic imperatives meant Keystone’s approval was nigh.

Federal Wheels Greased But Still Squeaky

The federal government’s appointed authority on Enbridge: the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel – which doesn’t include any British Columbians by the way – has already done what it can to keep things speedy, by denying First Nations’ requests for a parallel review, and limiting the scope of the review by excluding e.g. climate change impacts.

But the feds are still failing to heed the adage ‘a stitch in time saves nine’, by consistently falling short in their duties to First Nations, leading to virtually inevitable legal challenges.

Enbridge Out of Ideas?

For its part, Enbridge offered a 10% equity stake to First Nations, but that fell flat.

They’ve also been funding a project booster organization called the ‘Northern Gateway Alliance‘ in an attempt to build support for the project along the route, but if the number of Facebook Friends after two and half years is any indication, it hasn’t exactly caught fire.

In a further attempt to win the hearts and minds of British Columbians, Enbridge set up ‘Community Advisory Boards’ outside of the review process to tour the project route and incorporate community feedback. But since most northerners want no pipeline, not a different pipeline, I don’t think this is going to work either.

There really isn’t that much else Harper or Enbridge can do.

The Wall Remains

What today’s decision means is that despite the clamour, projects don’t get built without social licence, and when a lot of people get organized and deny social licence, politics trumps all else – as it should, because politics is how democracies get things done, after all.

In British Columbia, it doesn’t really matter which political party you vote for, chances are the next person you see is already opposed to more oil supertankers on the coast. More than 70 First Nations have signed legally-based declarations prohibiting these projects – the Fraser Declaration. These are a big deal.

Stephen Harper knows this, Premier Christy Clark knows this, and it doesn’t matter how hard the industry pushes, or how often the feds or Clark attempt to deflect controversy onto the regulators, I think sooner or later it will be in one of their best interests to cry uncle and look for an out.