04/26/2013 04:57 EDT | Updated 06/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Pipeline Parallels Between Ottawa and the U.S. Point the Way

Will he or won't he?

This week, the Keystone XL guessing game took another twist, scrambling the odds on whether U.S. President Barack Obama will ultimately approve the project.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finding on Monday that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline posed significant environmental risks is notably at odds with the more benign draft State Department conclusion in March that concluded the pipeline's environmental impacts would not be that bad. Keystone opponents are chuffed by EPA in same way as proponents were pumped by State a month earlier.

If nothing else, this demonstrates that the very public, protracted, and political nature of energy development and environmental assessment is alive and well in Washington. It's a parallel Ottawa is trying to avoid with the equally controversial Northern Gateway pipeline project in British Columbia. It too is meeting fierce opposition in some communities, First Nations, and now, the likely next premier of the province. Another guessing game in full swing.

But a big clue to its eventual outcome exists. Last year's amendments by the federal government to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency streamlined the process of environmental reviews and added a contentious new provision in its legislation giving the Cabinet the authority to approve a project even if "significant adverse environmental effects" exist. It could do so by determining it was "justified in the circumstances."

Ottawa may have had Keystone and the State Department in mind when it drafted this. Despite all the sound and fury, when it comes to Keystone in the U.S., environment doesn't rule. The "national interest" does. Those are the words that really matter in the State Department's final decision on awarding a permit for Keystone to proceed. And what comprises the national interest is instructive. It includes "energy security, health, environmental, cultural, economic, and foreign policy concerns". On most of these at least, Keystone holds a trump card. It's why federal ministers are trying to change the channel when speaking in Washington.

While Ottawa took the hint, it didn't heed the lesson. Process matters in policy. The former often dictates the latter. The federal government should take the next page from the State Department and spell out just what it means by "justified in the circumstances". Giving reasons after the fact is not sufficient. The very vagueness of the phrase may commend itself to lawyers and politicians (since it was drawn up by them) but does little for transparency and accountability.

The last time we had a pipeline debate in Canada was in the mid-1950s; it resulted in the defeat of the government of the day. More than a few commentators wish the same would happen this time too. One of those, Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon, a distinguished academic and climate change expert, gained attention last month by penning a pointed commentary in the New York Times saying the American president would actually do us, Canada, a favour by turning Keystone down. By taking such a bold position, he claimed, President Obama would stop the "erosion of democracy" in Canada no less.

Sadly for some Keystone opponents, "regime change" does not appear anywhere on the approved list of State Department definitions of national interest. But serious ones do, and that's where the debate will range and from which a decision will emerge.

In today's polarized debate on climate change, energy security, jobs, and the environment, we forget at our peril that the best path forward can only be found in another set of words: "sustainable development". Sustainable development does not mean no development. It means development that takes environmental impacts into account and responds accordingly. In the case of pipelines, that mostly means preventing spills and addressing air and greenhouse gas emissions. These are fair, legitimate, and serious concerns. Yet, however compelling, looking to environmental opposition as the likely barometer of the eventual outcome for either pipeline is ultimately misplaced.

Benjamin Disraeli observed a century and a half ago that "Finality is not the language of politics." In the end, however, pipeline approvals in both Canada and the U.S. look set to turn on just a few words: "national interest" for Keystone and "justified in the circumstances" for Northern Gateway.

These pipeline parallels point the way. Disraeli is wrong here. If either government wants a pipeline to proceed, the language of politics will be final after all.