Harper takes Republican allies

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Close observers of U.S. politics were surprised to see Newt Gingrich win the South Carolina primary. The prospective Republican nominee for President, a disgraced former congressman from Georgia, had to recover from successive primary defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a second ex-wife bent on retribution, to do it. Of equal surprise to Canadians was seeing Gingrich single out Stephen Harper in his victory speech.

At one level there was no need for astonishment in Canada. Links with Gingrich were established by the Reform Party (the Preston Manning-led forerunner to today's Conservative Party of Canada) when Harper was its research director. In those days, Newt Gingrich ruled over the U.S. House of Representatives as its speaker, and he spoke openly about lessons learned from Reform political practices. Based on past contact it was unsurprising to hear Gingrich accurately depict Harper as "a conservative and pro-American."

What was unexpected was the way Gingrich used his victory speech to ally himself with the Harper Conservatives in order to mount an attack on U.S. President Barrack Obama, the opponent for the eventual Republican nominee in the November presidential election.

Gingrich went after Obama for postponing approval of the extension to the Keystone pipeline, which is supposed to take raw bitumen from the Fort McMurray area of Alberta, down to the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be refined into motor and aviation fuel. By refusing to take Canadian petroleum, Gingrich said Obama was pushing Canada into an alliance with China, the presumed global rival of the U.S.

While the Americans blocked completion of an already existing pipeline that was to be constructed over level ground, on a direct route south, Gingrich pointed out the Canadians were preparing to build the Northern Gateway pipeline across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast, and so open a sea route to China for Alberta bitumen.

Prior to Gingrich's remarks, the current House Speaker, John Boehner, called a press conference to accuse Obama of killing American jobs by blocking the Keystone pipeline extension. He and his leadership told of being briefed by the Canadian embassy about the China option. Boehner pointed to the Northern Gateway project and the upcoming visit by Harper to China, announced by Ottawa, in anticipation of presidential unwillingness to provide a building permit for the Keystone extension.

Republican leaders have termed Obama the "no jobs" president. The best chance a Republican nominee for the presidency has to defeat the incumbent president is make his economic record work against him. Historically, when the unemployment rate increases in their first term, presidents fail to win a second term.

In the run-up to the election, Obama is understandably attentive to opposition environmental groups. Unsure of the eventual approval of Keystone, Harper has decided to increase the pressure on the U.S. president, by providing ammunition to his Republican opponents about the economic cost to the U.S. in lost jobs of not taking bitumen sands oil from Canada.

The centrepiece in the Harper strategy -- Canada as energy superpower -- is increased exports of bitumen to the U.S. The Harper regime believes it can turn public opinion in favour of the Keystone pipeline. Indeed, he may have a point. While Obama postponed a decision on the extension, he also asked the contractor, TransCanada pipeline, to propose an alternative route that would skirt a Nebraska aquifer.

To counter efforts by European environmental groups to ban "dirty oil" from bitumen sands, the Harper government undertook a major public relations campaign to discredit scientific arguments about the carbon intensity of petroleum product refined from bitumen. That campaign may have flopped, and damaged the image of Canada to boot, but Harper presses on. He feels secure in his alliance with Republican supporters of Keystone.

Just in case Keystone fails, and the Northern Gateway is blocked by Aboriginal groups who have never given up title to the land it must cross, Harper has a third option. Texas giant Kinder Morgan already sends Alberta crude to the port of Vancouver where it is loaded on tankers and shipped to California for refining. It has a proposal to increase capacity. That project does not require presidential approval.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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