Rarely has a policy so critical to a governments overarching strategy been bungled so spectacularly.
The ad, to be aired on MSNBC before and after President Barack Obamas address Tuesday, is the handiwork of NextGen Climate Group, an environmental organization led by billionaire anti-oilsands zealot Tom Steyer. Clocking in at just over a minute, it is far and away the most potent piece of propaganda levelled thus far in the Keystone debate, by either side. Applying stark imagery, crafty editing, selective use of facts and a punchy, populist script, it explicitly accuses the Canadian government of being in league with Beijing to sucker punch the American heartland.
The spot is blatantly misleading, shamefully tribal, and of course shockingly unfair to the thousands of Albertans and Canadians dedicated to responsible, sustainable development of the oilsands. It declares darkly that Chinese government-backed interests have invested $30-billion in Canadian tar sands development, and China just bought one of Canadas largest producers. The narrator neglects to mention that total foreign investment in Canadian fossil-fuel energy projects between 2007 and 2013 was about $100 billion, or that the U.S., U.K. and the Netherlands accounted for nearly 35 per cent of this, compared with Chinas 28 per cent.
The producer referred to, Nexen Resources Inc., was indeed acquired by Chinas state-owned CNOOC last year for $15.1 billion. The ads author misses, somehow, the protracted debate that preceded the takeover, resulting in Ottawas green-lighting that deal while slamming the door on future state-owned buyouts. The script twists facts to imply that a predatory China, aided by its vassal state Canada, is just beginning its nefarious quest to lay low America, if not the planet, with tar sands skullduggery. If it werent so potentially damaging, it would be laughable.
But heres where it gets particularly galling, and where the Harper governments cutting-edge energy diplomacy comes into play. Simply put, the prime minister himself created the conditions in which propaganda such as this could emerge, and be believed by some. He also created the conditions in which an ideologically left-leaning U.S. president such as Obama, under intense fire for years from his base for selling out to The Man, would be tempted to now cave in to the environmental lobby. The likely reason why the lobby is going for broke now: It smells blood.
It was Harper who, late in 2011, when the Obama administration first gave Keystone the cold shoulder, made a public show of an overture to China, grandly offering Canadas energy to Beijing if America wouldnt take it. That was a pressure tactic, intended to bolster Republicans in Congress and others in the U.S. who were pressing Obama to approve Keystone. Obama could not fail to come round, it was believed, because it was so demonstrably in Americas interest that he do so.
Problem: Even in early 2012, it was becoming clear that the U.S. was about to come into major new sources of energy domestically. According to an International Energy Agency report last November, America is on track to move ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia as the worlds top oil producer by 2015, due to new horizontal drilling techniques, and shale output. American energy self-sufficiency, once believed to be a pipe dream, is now within reach. The hard argument for Keystone as a bulwark of U.S. national economic security thus becomes less potent. And Obama, like any politician, probably doesnt much like being stiff-armed.
Then, further undermining Canadas position, the Harper government failed repeatedly to meet its promise to impose greenhouse gas emissions standards on the oilpatch; Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver famously referred to environmentalists as enemies of Canada; and the gloriously wrongheaded $21.5-billion-carbon-tax talking point emerged in the House of Commons, to be recited daily by obedient Conservative backbenchers. Because we have the Interwebs, word of all this somehow leaked to the outside world. So, at the very time when Obama needed to sell Canada to his own base, as a reliable partner in environmental stewardship, Harpers people were painting themselves as the opposite with all-too predictable results.
Heres whats truly astonishing about all this: The business of pipelines, Northern Gateway to the Pacific and Keystone XL to the Gulf coast, is at the absolute heart of the Conservatives long-term strategic plan for Canada. Yet it lies now in near ruin, because of incompetent engagement with aboriginal groups on the one hand, and incompetent communication with the U.S. leadership on the other. Of all the Harper governments miscues, this may be the most serious and far-reaching. Its odd it hasnt drawn more attention.
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