Meet Canada’s Pipeline Pitchman


President Barack Obama is expected to make a final decision in the next few months about whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would stretch more than 1,000 miles between Alberta and Oklahoma and transport crude from Canada’s oil sands into the United States. Keystone is opposed by environmentalists in both the U.S. and Canada, but the Canadian government is eager to make the pipeline happen. The man leading that effort is Canada’s Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. He was in New York this week drumming up support for the plan and Oliver talked with TPM about why he doesn’t think anyone has anything to fear from Keystone in spite of a recent, dramatic pipeline spill in Arkansas.Oliver, a member of Canada’s ruling Conservative Party, said he’s optimistic the pipeline will be approved by the State Department. A recent poll showed 66 percent of Americans support the plan and a majority in both the House and Senate back the pipeline. One concern opponents have is that the pipeline would travel through the Nebraska’s fragile Sand Hills region. In January, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) dropped his opposition to Keystone XL after a route change.

“I feel there have been a lot of positive substantive developments that have occurred. … The governor of every state through which the pipeline is going is on side, the majority of the Senate the majority of congressmen, strong majority of the American public are on side,” Oliver said. “That’s not surprising because this deals with national security, jobs, economic growth revenue. … The potential negatives have been dealt with by the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense. This is not going to create significant environmental damage and the pipeline will be safer than existing, typically constructed pipelines.”

In March, a more than 60-year-old oil pipeline in Arkansas burst sending crude through a suburban neighborhood and supplying ammunition to Keystone’s critics, who said the spill was an indicator of the project’s risks. Oliver argued Keystone XL is being properly managed to minimize potential risk with an increased number of audits and inspections by independent regulatory agencies and stiff fines set up to discourage contractors from taking shortcuts.

“Pipelines are the safest form of transportation of oil and gas. They’re safe 99.9996 percent of the time,” said Oliver. “Now, because its six billion barrels going through the states on an annual basis, even though the percentage is miniscule, there’s still a fair amount of oil. So, we’re working to make the project as safe as it can be. … We’ve got regulatory agencies watching this. … Our objective is zero serious spills. We’re doing well, but there are accidents that happen occasionally and that’s what were trying to eliminate. To the extent something happens, you want the emergency response to be immediate, and comprehensive, and the polluter pays.”

Oliver also noted some risk is inherent in any commerce.

“There’s no form of transportation of products or people which is 100 percent safe. I mean, if that were the criteria we’d shut the roads, we’d stop the airplanes from flying, we’d close down the rail network,” he said. “We accept a certain level of risk, we do everything we can to continue to diminsih it and that’s what we’re doing with the pipeline.”

A major reason for environmentalist opposition to the pipeline is increased carbon emissions from development of the oil sands that the pipeline will facilitate.

“Part of the opponents are certain environmental groups who are opposed to hydrocarbon development,” Oliver said. “I mean, they’re looking at this project as a symbol, because I don’t think they have the facts on this project to say it shouldn’t be approved on its merits. … They feel if they can stop this infrastructure project and then move on to others–if you can’t transport the oil, then it’s stranded. That’s their objective.”

Another one of Oliver’s arguments for building the pipeline is that Canada is a far more agreeable source of foreign oil for America than other potential trading partners in the Middle East and Latin America.

“We’re friends, we’re allies, we’re a reliable partner, we honor our contractual obligations, we’re right there,” said Oliver, before adding the project also will be a boon to U.S. businesses. “American companies are heavily involved in the oil sands, American ingenuity was part of the development of the oil sands.”

The public commenting period for the State Department review of the pipeline wrapped up on Monday. President Obama is expected to announce his final decision on the project by late summer or early fall. For Oliver, his decision can’t come quickly enough.

“I certainly expected it to be approved before now,” Oliver said. “Hopefully, it will be approved soon.”