01/28/2012 12:17 EST | Updated 03/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Canadians Want a Pipeline, Not a U.S. Campaign Issue


Canadians dislike it when the American political system pays Canada no attention. This election season, Canada may face an alternative: too much attention.

In the midst of his victory speech after the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich inserted a shout-out to Canada. After blasting President Obama for halting the Keystone XL pipeline, Gingrich added:

"What Prime Minister [Stephen] Harper -- who, by the way, is conservative and pro-American -- what he has said is he's gonna cut a deal with the Chinese and they'll build a pipeline straight across the Rockies to Vancouver. We'll get none of the jobs, none of the energy, none of the opportunity. Now, an American president who can create a Chinese-Canadian partnership is truly a danger to this country."

The Northern Gateway pipeline does not terminate in Vancouver, but close enough, let it pass. The real news here is that Gingrich is hitting a theme that will be repeated and enlarged between now and November. Republicans see in Keystone a powerful political weapon against Barack Obama. The weapon

cuts especially sharp because it divides Democrats from each other. The pipeline -- and the oil sands that will supply the pipeline -- are anathema to Obama's wealthy environmentalist donors. However, the highly paid construction and refinery jobs that will be created by the pipeline are dearly desired by blue-collar Democrats whose votes Obama will need.

Gingrich hit this internal Democratic division hard in South Carolina:

"The president says, 'No, we don't want you to build a pipeline from Central Canada straight down with no mountains intervening to the largest petrochemical centre in the world in Houston, so we'd make money on the pipeline, make money on refining the oil and shipping the oil. Oh, no, we don't want to do that,' because Barack Obama is taking care of his extremist left-wing friends in San Francisco. They think that'll really stop the oil from heading out."

To keep the internal Democratic divide fresh, congressional Republicans are attaching pro-Keystone amendments to a succession of important administration measures: first, a payroll tax cut; next up, perhaps a big multi-year highway bill. Meanwhile, the presidential candidates will talk Keystone on the campaign trail as one more reason to defeat Barack Obama in November.

Canadians, however, want a pipeline, not a campaign issue. The harder the Republicans hit, the more fixed the Democratic position becomes. Obama's original intent on the pipeline issue appears to have been: postpone the pipeline issue until 2013, collect maximum donations from deep-pocketed donors, win re-election, then reconsider. Now, however, opposition to Keystone is hardening into the consensus view of Democrats in Congress. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, told reporters on Jan. 24:

"If we want to wean ourselves from foreign oil, why would we allow a pipeline to be built of 1,700 miles to manufacture petroleum products to be shipped overseas? That's the purpose of this."

For almost 50 years, American leaders have urged a continental energy policy that would integrate the U.S. and Canadian oil markets into one. The older folks may recall that back in the 1980s, Canadians opponents of the Free Trade Agreement with the US warned that the treaty might lock Canada into

just such a continental deal.

But that was then. Now, Canada is sitting atop a resource so huge and so capital-intense that it cannot be developed successfully unless it is developed for export. Now it is a Democratic senator who expresses hesitation about over-reliance on Canadian oil -- "foreign oil," as he calls it, to conjure up images of oil sheikhs and petro-dictators.

Historically, both U.S. political parties have taken turns advancing the U.S.-Canada relationship. It was a Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, who first extended an explicit U.S. security guarantee to Canada. It was a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, who co-operated on the St. Lawrence Seaway and brought about a common market in defence procurement. The Auto Pact was signed under Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, the U.S.-Canada FTA under the Republican Ronald Reagan, and the acid rain problem solved under another Republican, George H.W. Bush.

It would be strange if that tradition came to grief under Barack Obama, a president whose election was so welcomed by so many Canadians. It would be even stranger if the weakening of the U.S.-Canada relationship proved one of the issues that helped a elect a Republican president in 2012.

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