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It's official: The Harper Government’s approach to petro-diplomacy was a spectacular flop

Barack Obama

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The office of the President of the United States may not be what it once was, but it's occupant remains the Most Powerful Person in the World.

Can we agree on just that much before we plunge ourselves into full-blown apocalyptic hysteria on the topic of the Keystone XL pipeline, of which the officeholder formerly known as the Most Powerful Man in the World yesterday said No, thank you, Canada, it will not be built?

Maybe, just maybe, telling the most powerful person on the planet that we just weren't going to take no for an answer, and his political enemies would soon be ushered into power anyway -- neener! neener! -- might not have been the best way to get what we wanted.

Among those Canadians (whom I suspect are a majority) and Albertans (whom I am confident are) who want to see economic activity continue in this province's oilpatch, and for the good times to continue to roll, there has always been a significant rift over how best to accomplish this goal.

There was the established Alberta political approach, brutal in nature, best exemplified by former prime minister Stephen Harper, who said in effect, "get out of our way or we will roll over you." Global warming? The environment? Just shut up!

There was the social license model advocated by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, that argued, in effect, if we can't persuade the markets we're doing our bit to ensure the planet's survival, no one will buy our product.

The advocates of the first approach tended to dismiss the advocates of the second as weaklings and ninnies, patently unwilling to fight hard enough "for Alberta" in the Imperial Capital.

Notley's reaction to President Barack Obama's announcement yesterday that he would deliver the coup de grace to the Keystone XL Pipeline, the basket into which our former Conservative masters placed all of our eggs, emphasized the social license approach she has advocated from the start: "The decision today underlines the need to improve our environmental record and reputation so that we can achieve our goal of building Canada’s energy infrastructure, including pipelines to new markets," she said.

"This highlights that we need to do a better job and that's why I'm so pleased about the work that is ongoing towards a new climate change plan for Alberta. We're working hard with stakeholders and we intend to act decisively to increase the likelihood of getting our product to tidewater."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to be expressing similar thoughts in Ottawa.

This, I expect, will drive the advocates of the Harper steamroller approach, now reduced to fortifying their redoubt in Alberta, to sheer fury. The province's Wildrose Opposition certainly sounded like that, when Leader Brian Jean stormed in a press statement that "Premier Rachel Notley has failed to stand up and fight for this important project over the past several months."

"Instead, she has spoken against it," he went on, a statement that is not true, unless you count acknowledging that the KXL Pipeline had turned into a dud anyway because our neighbour, the Most Powerful Nation on Earth, had at least for the moment turned its back on it.

The Wildrosers and their remaining federal cousins will stick bitterly with this line, even though there's a strong case to be made it was never the answer to marketing Bitumen Sands oil abroad, and indeed is at the heart of our problem selling the stuff now.

One feels a certain empathy, if not sympathy. After all, it's hard to give up a strategy that was so effective at home (as long as the Conservatives held overwhelming majorities in Ottawa and Edmonton) even if it was a dud in Washington. If you win every home game, it can be hard to believe there's a tougher opponent waiting somewhere else.

But surely it should be obvious now that Harper's hectoring, Bitumen bullying and expressions of sympathy with President Obama's political enemies was a really terrible strategy. At the least, if we wanted this project built, perhaps we should have tried to offer our American cousins a proposal that worked for them, instead of demanding they take one that we had decided worked for us.

The irony now is that even with more diplomatic leaders in Ottawa and Edmonton, the Harper approach has likely made it much more difficult for Notley's strategy to succeed.

Obama now seems disinclined to play ball with a country that wouldn't play ball with him on a question important to his presidency.

The Canadian right keeps insisting Obama is the proverbial lame duck, and that his decisions will count for nothing when a new president is sworn in. Well, it could be. And the supply situation could tighten up again too… or maybe not. But don't bet your TransCanada PipeLines shares on it!

It seems most likely the White House will be occupied by another Democrat no more enthusiastic about Alberta's Bitumen Sands oil than the present occupant. Notley is right that if we want anyone to buy our Bitumen, we need to get it to tidewater. But that too will require co-operation and diplomacy, not blunt force.

Surely one thing should be obvious -- though I doubt it will be to the Usual Suspects -- and that's that the late Harper Government's approach to petro-diplomacy was a spectacular flop.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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