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Canada Offers a Worthless Bargaining Chip in the Fight Over Keystone XL

Canada is willing to do just about anything if President Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline.

That was the gist of a letter Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent to Obama in late August. In the letter, which Canada’s CBC News reported last Friday, Harper promised to accept targets proposed by the United States to reduce its emissions, if the Obama administration agrees to greenlight the pipeline.

It is a huge move—or a hugely desperate move, depending on who you ask. Obama has never spelled out what kind of concessions Canada could make that would entice America’s environmentalists to drop their opposition of the pipeline. And it is doubtful such a deal exists, given how environmentally damaging the pipeline would be. Building the Keystone would create a U.S. market for the oil extracted from Alberta’s tar sands—a highly polluting, carbon-intense prospect which most environmentalists say would equal “game over” for the fight to control climate change. (Canada’s oil providers counters that a failure to build the pipeline, and thus export their product for refinement in the U.S., is game over for their industry.) Blocking the Keystone XL is not just a cause of the environmental movement. As Ryan Lizza argues in a New Yorker feature out today, it is the cause that has brought environmental activism roaring back to prominence after the failure of cap-and-trade legislation scattered the movement to the four winds in 2009.

So how are environmentalists reacting to Harper’s offer? In an email, Bill McKibben, a writer and activist who helped make the defeat of Keystone XL a core mission of the green movement, said this: “There's nothing useful Canada can offer if it’s going to develop the tar sands. It's like announcing you're going on a diet that features three sundaes a day.” Daniel Kessler, of, the principle organizing force against Keystone, accused Harper of “trying to confuse the issue.”  “Tar sands need to stay in the ground,” he said, “and that's the only deal that Harper and Obama should be talking about.”

If that sounds overly obstinate, Danielle Droitsch, the director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada project, pointed out that under Harper, Canada’s record of actually keeping its climate change promises has been deplorable. “He had promised that all tar sands operations after 2012 would only be permitted if the industry used carbon capture and sequestration technology—that never happened,” she said. “In 2011, Canada formally withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the only country in the world to do so.” The year 2010 was supposed to bring new coal regulations, to no avail. In 2008, Canada committed to reduce its emissions by 580 million metric tons by the year 2020. In 2009, they upped that commitment to a reduction of 626 million metric tons. Today, Droitsch said, the country is on track to exceed their 2020 goals by a huge margin—"more emissions than Canada’s entire electricity sector produces today."

So maybe environmentalists would be more amenable to a trade if Canada were a more credible negotiator. And yet the explosive growth of the emissions-heavy oil sands industry, Droitsch said, is the very reason the country keeps flunking its emissions targets. Harper’s offer to pay any price for Obama to approve the Keystone—which Obama has not responded to—is proof by itself that he is unlikely to be able to keep any promises he makes.

All told, Harper is offering Obama political cover—not an environmentally-friendly guarantee.

Molly Redden is a New Republic staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @mtredden.