October 30th, 2014


Energy Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle

Author, Keystone and Beyond

Trade Commissioner for Science and Technology for Sustainable Technologies, Consulate General of Canada


One way or another, Canadian crude oil is coming – whether by land, by sea or underground via the embattled Keystone Pipeline System. Keystone has been heavily opposed by environmentalists and was rejected by President Obama, but proponents of the project continue to lobby for its completion. As Hilary Clinton said in a previous Climate One interview, “we have to get our oil from somewhere.” If we don’t get it from Canada, she said, we run the risk of relying on less stable foreign sources.

When Climate One hosted a recent discussion on the pros and cons of Keystone, that assumption was challenged. Is the need for oil from Canada – or anywhere – a foregone conclusion? Or does the current back-patting over increased domestic production ignore a bigger question: shouldn’t we be curbing our reliance on fossil fuels altogether?

Jack Cushman, author of “Keystone and Beyond,” says that in tapping Canada as an oil resource back in 2000, the Bush administration rejected concerns about C02 emissions and global warming out of hand. But Barack Obama saw things differently when he entered the White House. “He has a policy that emphasizes the increasing certainty of the climate science, and his entire agenda has been to recognize that carbon dioxide is a pollutant,” Cushman told the audience. “So when Obama addresses the question of the Keystone, he's doing so on fundamentally different premises than those that were brought to the table at the beginning of this project.”

As Congress argues the validity of global warming, Cushman continued, the Keystone Pipeline has become a fulcrum in the debate. “Everybody understands that the real question is, are we going to accept the new science on climate change and are we going to act in a way to address that with the needs of the next couple of generations in mind? But for the moment, we've been stuck with the pipeline debate.”

Dan Matross, who represents the Consulate General of Canada, doesn’t agree with reports that say our thirst for oil is on the wane. Rather, he insists, demand is increasing, and Canadian crude is coming to market one way or another. But he emphasized that environmental concerns are on the minds of its producers. “[It’s] part of the competitiveness of the oil product that's coming out of Alberta,” he says. “The environmental performance of Alberta oil sands oil is increasing. They're doing it more efficiently. They're doing it with brand new sources of innovation, new technology. So I think this oil is going get to market.”

Cushman maintains that weaning America off of fossil fuels altogether is the central issue – not who we’re buying it from. Saying that ‘the oil is coming to market anyway,’ he adds, is like a parent saying they serve alcohol to teenagers at home because ‘they’ll just booze someplace else.’

Environmental, economic and diplomatic factors complicate the pipeline issue for Obama, says David Baker, energy reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Environmentalists, who believe that Alberta’s carbon should stay in the ground, see stopping the pipeline as a means toward that end. But spurning Canada in favor of fracking on American soil puts the president in an awkward position. “Essentially he'd be saying to Canada, our closest trading partner, neighbor and friend, and ally, ‘Okay, I'm going to develop my carbon. You, I'd like you to keep yours on the ground. Sorry about that.’ That's a very tough talk to have,” Baker says.

As far as environmental performance goes, Cushman pointed out that although Canada isn’t meeting its Copenhagen commitments on C02 emissions, it has options. “There are energy solutions that can get you there... [Oil producer] TransCanada knows how to produce solar electricity and nuclear electricity,” he says. “So there are ways other than taking the tar sands and building a pipeline to connect two places that have the most striking man-made footprint on the landscape that you will ever see anywhere in the world.”

Matross returned to the premise that US demand for oil isn’t going down. We’re going to get it from somewhere, he insists – and we should do so “in the smartest way possible.” By land or by sea, by rail, ship or pipeline, Matross says, Canada is ready to deliver the goods to our refineries.

“So we can debate the merits on the greenhouse gas aspects from a scientific standpoint, from a market standpoint, from an economic standpoint. But let's not underestimate the ingenuity of Canadians in, one, bringing their product to market, and two, improving the environmental performance of the product.”

-Anny Celsi
October 30, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California