It's up to the U.S. President to decide whether the cross-border leg of the Keystone XL pipeline is in the national interest of his country. Ultimately, his criteria are less scientific than political. Does he stand to lose more by alienating those who support or oppose the project?
With midterm elections coming up in November, Obama doesn't have time to worry about Canada's hurt feelings. Our economy, environment and opinion are very low on his list of priorities.
But the strongest pro-Keystone arguments on the American side raise an uncomfortable question: if the pipeline is approved, who benefits a little bit — and who benefits a lot? In other words, who gets the short end of the stick?
Houston-based Forbes contributor Loren Steffy lays out the business logic behind Keystone XL with a clarity you'd be hard-pressed to find on our side of the border:
“[In 2011], for the first time in six decades, the U.S. exported more gasoline and diesel than it imported. The bulk of the exports went to Mexico, Canada and Brazil. Mexico and Canada, even without Keystone, are two of our biggest suppliers of crude (Canada is No. 1; Mexico is No. 4 behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela). Gasoline, of course, is more expensive than crude, so we are in effect importing raw materials, adding value, and selling it back at a higher price – and maintaining U.S. jobs in the process.”
Catch that? It sounds a lot like the old story about exporting logs and buying back the furniture. Our domestic politicians tell us we're an “energy superpower,” but to hear U.S. analysts describe it, we're more of a convenient resource colony.
Canada is a rare duck indeed: a developed nation that is also a net exporter of crude oil. But the U.S. is catching up, thanks to a different kind of oil. The crude coming out of North Dakota's Bakken shale is light and sweet. Canada's is higher in sulphur and carbon content, while lower in energy and therefore value.
We produce light crude too, but not enough to match domestic consumption. And we don't have the refineries to handle our own heavy oil. So we import light crude and gasoline to make up the difference, and send our low-grade stuff to the U.S.
We're producing so much oil sands crude that we've overwhelmed cross-border pipeline capacity. Now the industry is stuck in a Catch-22. Profit margins have dropped dramatically. To reassure investors, bitumen miners talk about dramatically expanding production. But the more we produce, the more we exacerbate the supply glut.
The industry's best hope right now lies in pipelines like the Keystone XL.
Back to Barack Obama. He doesn't care about the woes of Canadian oil sands producers. His job is to calculate the U.S. national interest — or at least a version he can sell to voters. Last week's State Department environmental impact report gave him more political cover on the question of increased carbon emissions.
Yes, operating the pipeline would be like adding 300,000 cars to the road. Yes, Canadian crude is worse for the atmosphere than the other heavy grades it would displace. But, the report argues, without Keystone much of the same oil would find its way to the same refineries by rail — creating even more emissions than the pipeline, and significantly increasing the risk of accidents.
Rejecting Keystone, the report finds, won't stop Canadian producers from digging up oil. The question is how they get it to customers.
“Keystone is important to the U.S. because it amounts to an energy insurance policy,” wrote Loren Steffy in Forbes. “Keystone gives us improved access to Canadian crude, which, with or without Keystone, is likely to remain some of the cheapest in the world.”
Is it smart for the president to lock in a stable supply of cheap oil from an eager neighbour? Yes. Is it smart to provide short-term jobs for U.S. construction and refinery workers? Yes. Will the political benefits outweigh the backlash? It's a good bet Obama will decide yes.
The voters who will be most upset are probably the Nebraska ranchers whose lands will be expropriated. But they're already Republicans.
Many backs will be slapped and victory cigars chomped in Calgary and Ottawa, the day Keystone XL is approved. Stephen Harper and his cabinet ministers will, no doubt, claim full credit.
Who will be the real winners? Oil companies, certainly. The Government of Alberta, which badly needs the royalties.
On a more modest level, perhaps the Canadian treasury. More than half the federal government's revenue now comes from personal income tax. So the bean counters will be happy at the prospect of higher wages in the oil patch, so long as wages don't drop in other parts of the economy.
But remember, oil and gas together make up less than 7% of Canada's GDP. The entire sector pays 4.2% of total corporate taxes. And it provides only 3% of the jobs in the country. What's good for oil sands companies is not necessarily the same as what's good for the nation.
How about ordinary Canadians? Perhaps we'll feel a fleeting sense of pride that our low-grade crude has found a loving home in the big Gulf Coast refineries. Then we'll go fill up our gas tanks.
Image credit: www.keystone-xl.com