How the Harper Government Fuelled the Anti-Keystone XL Movement

As the Obama administration revisits its decision on whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, DeSmog Canada decided to take a look at how the project became a cause célèbre.

We asked ourselves: Of all the environmental causes to fight, what was it that mobilized Hollywood celebrities, renowned scientists, environmental activists and a handful of Texans to face jail time protesting a proposed pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast?

What’s more: How did a decision on the project – which Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper once brushed off as a “no-brainer” – get sidelined by the U.S. government ahead of a crucial 2012 presidential election?

While the Stephen Harper government has been quick to point fingers at so-called foreign-funded “radicals” and First Nations, we believe the answer lies much closer to home.

In fact, if the Obama administration decides to reject TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, the Harper government will need to face facts: Its own environmental policies and PR tactics will be largely to blame.

Its pro-pipeline campaign, which vilifies environmental groups and suggests Canadians must choose between the economy and the environment, is backfiring. Keystone XL could very well be the first failure case study, followed by other anti-pipeline movements such as the one organizing against the Enbridge Northern Gateway.

Where exactly did the Harper government go wrong? The bungling of the issue dates back to 2006, when the newly elected Harper administration began backing away from the Kyoto Protocol climate change agreement, going against the trend of most other developing nations.

At a time when climate change concerns started to resurface as a top issue for Canadians, the Harper government was signaling its plans to loosen environmental targets for heavy-polluting industries, in particular oil and gas and tar sands. Its argument was that the targets were unrealistic and uneconomic.

That said, as the 2008-09 recession took hold, the pro-development message resonated with many Canadians. While climate change concerns remained, polls taken during the global financial crisis showed those worries took a back seat to the economic worries.

However, as the economy recovered in 2010 and 2011, so too did environmental concerns. Still the Harper government continued to drive home its commitment to expanding the Alberta tar sands and played down the importance of meeting emissions targets.

When it officially withdrew Canada from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, amid international backlash, the Harper government and its friends in the oil industry continued to treat climate change not as an environmental issue, but as a public relations problem.

Once the U.S. announced it would delay the Keystone XL decision, the Harper PR machine went into overdrive. Instead of seeking collaboration with environmental groups and First Nations, the government doubled down, ramping up its rhetoric about environmental “radicals,” while at the same time increasing its advertising spending to promote the Harper administration as environmentally responsible.

Consider the response to a February 2013 report from the federal environment commissioner, Scott Vaughan, which found shortcomings in how the government protects citizens from pollution risks associated with resources development. Commenting on the findings in his final report Commissioner Vaughan said, “we need a boom in environmental protection in this country.”

Instead of responding with a commitment to do better the Harper Government sent Canadian Ambassador to the US, Gary Doer, out to the media to suggest that Keystone XL critics have overblown the estimated net increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the Keystone pipeline project.

He was quoted by Postmedia News saying: “If you ask the question: Do you want oil from (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez or (Alberta Premier) Alison Redford I think I know the answer.”

With all due respect to the Ambassador this is just a bad political shell game that has already backfired once. People can see that he is asking the wrong question. What Americans want to know is: Why isn’t the Harper government working quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the tar sands and other sectors of the Canadian economy?

In its newest advertising campaign, the government continues to promote itself as greening the tar sands, even though its emission targets remain largely unchanged. This greenwashing only serves to inflame the critics, as we’ve seen with the fresh round of Keystone XL climate change protests in Washington.

Now, as a result of the Harper government’s muted response to environmental concerns, Keystone XL has become about much more than just a pipeline. As a recent opinion piece in The Guardian points out, Keystone XL will become a climate legacy issue for the Obama administration at a time when the environment has once again become top-of-mind for many Americans, particularly in the destructive aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.

Instead of attempting to address society’s growing concern about climate change, the Harper government’s response has been to try to spin its way out of the issue through denial and misleading PR campaigns. What’s worse, these government-sponsored ad campaigns are being funded by Canadian taxpayers, many of whom disagree with the Harper administration’s position on the environment, according to polls.

Still, as global climate change concerns continue to grow, the Harper government continues to dig in its heels. It’s that stance that is fuelling environmentalists not just with Keystone XL, but Northern Gateway and other resource projects across North America.

Opposition to Canada’s tar sands expansion efforts is growing globally, and the Harper government has only itself to blame.

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