The Killing of the Keystone XL Pipeline: Implications on Canada-US Relations and Climate Change

The U.S. may potentially position itself as a new climate leader, but will Canada follow suit? Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it.

Angela Phan
Jan 21 · 5 min read
Protestors at sundown. One protestor holds a sign that says “No XL”, referring to the Keystone Pipeline Expansion
Protestors at sundown. One protestor holds a sign that says “No XL”, referring to the Keystone Pipeline Expansion
Picture Credit: Canva

Joe Biden has made it clear that climate change will be a top priority for his administration as he takes office on January 20th, 2021. In a monumental announcement for environmentalists everywhere, Biden declared that he will sign an executive order revoking the cross-border permit for the Northern expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline — a project that has garnered over a decade of controversy and media attention.

The death of the project would kick off an uncertain political relationship between Trudeau and Biden, as the Keystone project is supported by the major political parties in Canada. It will also fuel further climate change discussions that are sure to breed strong opposing sides as Canada remains at a juncture between climate action and oil and gas. Biden is also adopting four years of anti-climate change rhetoric and a population that is more divided than unified because of opposing political, cultural, and social beliefs. The cancellation of Keystone goes beyond a pipeline, as the project represents the complexities between politics and climate change.

What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?

The Keystone XL pipeline is a cross-border TC Energy (formerly known as TransCanada) project that sends crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to multiple processing hubs in the Mid-West regions of the United States (U.S.) as well as Texas. The expansion, which was proposed in 2008, would increase the transport of oil to 830,000 barrels of oil per day.

Map of the current and proposed pipeline for the Keystone XL project
Map of the current and proposed pipeline for the Keystone XL project
Picture Credit: Keystone XL

Since the announcement of its expansion, environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and farmers alike have protested its construction for a variety of reasons. One of the most prominent being on the basis of climate change and other devastating environmental consequences such as water pollution, clear-cutting through ecosystems, and disruption of species migration routes and habitats.

While the XL expansion has garnered a lot of opposition it has also had powerful supporters who have kept the project on the table for the last decade or so, despite the legal challenges and obstacles it has faced. Both Canadian and American administrations have supported the pipeline. Alberta, the province where the pipeline is mainly situated on the Canadian side, is a huge financial player in the construction of the pipeline because of its pro-oil and gas stance. Major financial banks, such as JPMorgan Chase and the Bank of Montreal, back the project while insurance companies like Liberty Mutual provide coverage.

Keystone XL and the Climate Crisis

Short answer: yes, but it is complicated. The U.S. Department of State had previously said that the pipeline would emit between 1 million and 27 million tons of CO2 emissions annually, which in other words means that it would be equivalent to the “annual GHG emissions of 5.7 million passenger vehicles or 7.8 coal-fired power plants,” if assessed on the high-end.

The full development of the Albertan tar sands would be devastating to the climate. The production and processing of the tar sands release 17 percent more carbon-intensive than the average barrel of crude oil.

When you take into account that Canada is utterly failing to meet its current Paris Agreement obligations (currently rated as insufficient, according to Climate Tracker) and the United States withdrew from the agreement, I think it’s safe to say that both countries need to take considerable actions against climate change. The cancellation of the Keystone expansion could be in the right direction to do so. However, energy experts have come forward saying that the cancelled pipeline would do little to curb oil dependency, and instead, will force the U.S. to increase its imports from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Russia who have less-strict environmental and labour standards.

Despite the criticisms against cancelling the XL expansion, it is clear that pipelines do not support climate action, and continuing the construction will only increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada-US Relations

While the world reacts to the news of Biden’s intentions on killing the project, Canada is at the forefront of the discussion. Although it would seem that Trudeau and Trump’s political priorities differed, one area they did agree on was the continuation of the Keystone expansion.

Jason Kenney, the current Premier for Alberta, is a critical supporter of the Keystone XL project. In 2020, the provincial government invested 1.5 billion dollars to fund the expansion. He has already stated that if Biden does decide to end the project, he will be seeking financial compensation on a legal basis, due to the devastating economic impacts it would have on Albertans. Trudeau has also announced that he will make sure that “Canada’s views are heard” on the pipeline.

Erin O’Toole, the Federal Conservative party leader, has also vocalized his support for the pipeline and urged Trudeau to ensure that the project continues to move forward. Despite the support from prominent politicians, other party leaders, such as Jagmeet Singh and Annamie Paul, for the NDP and Green party respectively, have both vocalized their support for Biden’s plans to cancel the pipeline.

Tweet released by Annamie Paul on January 17th.

Considering that the Trudeau government supports the pipeline, it could indicate a rocky start to a new working relationship with Canada. Although, it is still to be seen what that will mean exactly, especially for energy-related relations between both countries. Canada has made it clear it will make their position known to the Biden administration that the Keystone Pipeline Expansion is economically beneficial for both the U.S. and Canada. Despite their differences in regard to the Keystone Pipeline, Trudeau has expressed that he is looking forward to working with Biden in the future in order to “create jobs and build back better together.”

I’ll admit I am biased. I will forever be staunchly against the continuous reliance on fossil fuels. However, I think this is an important stance to take when you consider all the other implications such as Indigenous sovereignty and rights, water access, deforestation, and so much more.

From a Canadian standpoint, Canada has relied far too long on its oil and gas industries. Our emissions have not improved, and in fact have gotten worse, because we still are not willing to transition from oil and gas. The cancellation of Keystone XL can provide an opportunity for both the U.S. and Canada to work together to begin seriously considering climate action policies.

The cancellation of the Keystone project is the wake-up call both nations need in order to take climate change more seriously, while also bolstering other economic initiatives that promote green jobs. If both administrations want to “build back better” together, climate needs to be part of that rebuilding.

Climate Conscious

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By Climate Conscious

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Angela Phan

Written by

Just another recent graduate trying to figure out how to function as a proper adult. Based in Vancouver, BC.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Angela Phan

Written by

Just another recent graduate trying to figure out how to function as a proper adult. Based in Vancouver, BC.

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

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