With his country’s foreign minister in tow, Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer walked the marble corridors of the U.S. Capitol yesterday pitching the prize his nation is seeking: the Keystone XL pipeline.
“It always makes more sense in our view to get energy from middle North American than the Middle East,” Doer said after a session with Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, a Keystone supporter.
Backing a project bitterly opposed by environmentalists is something of a shift for Doer. During his three terms as premier of Manitoba, he built a reputation as a champion of combating global warming. He backed the Kyoto Protocol to cut global carbon emissions, pushed to shut coal-fired power plants and promoted renewable energy such as wind and hydropower. He was named by Businessweek in 2005 as one of 20 people leading the fight against climate change.
Now Doer is on the other side of an issue that has inflamed his one-time climate allies.
“I’m just trying to put the puck in the net,” Doer said in an interview last month at the expansive Canadian embassy in Washington, a little more than a slapshot from the Capitol and decorated with drawings of Niagara Falls, a walrus and a polar bear.
While environmentalists consider Keystone an assault on the climate, Canada is counting on TransCanada Corp. (TRP)’s $5.4 billion project to connect its vast reserves of crude oil to the world’s largest refining center along the U.S. coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The pipeline would help oil-sands developers reach their goal of doubling production by 2025, and raise the prices they are paid for the fossil fuel -- putting pressure on Doer and his colleagues to make a case in Washington.
“This matters to Canada,” Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters following an address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today. “We’re a close friend, we’re a close ally, and we want to see this project go forward.”
Logs show Doer has been a frequent visitor to the White House. He also meets regularly with U.S. and Canadian media outlets as well as labor groups and government agencies, highlighting the benefits of Keystone to both countries.
In October, the embassy co-hosted an event with an oil-industry group whose members include Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), Chevron Corp. (CVX) and Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) Yesterday, Doer and Baird met with both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“He is an immensely pragmatic politician,” Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, which opposes the pipeline, said of Doer. “As premier of Manitoba, being good on climate is good politics. It’s not part of the job description to be Canada’s ambassador to Washington.”
In the interview at the embassy, Doer dismissed opposition to Keystone as uninformed and driven by an “environmental industry” in Washington that has turned the controversy into a tool for fundraising. He said he promoted oil and gas development when he was premier, too.
“My view is the oil is coming from Canada now,” he said. “It’s just a question of how it gets there.”
Trains that fill a gap in transport capacity release more greenhouse gases and aren’t as safe as pipelines, Doer said. Canada is a reliable U.S. ally, and its oil will displace imports from Venezuela, which isn’t, Doer said.
With graying hair and a slightly grizzled voice, Doer, 65, has built his career, from president of the Manitoba Government Employees’ Association to chief of his nation’s most important embassy, by nurturing relationships. He employs humor, energy and a deft personal touch.
He’s already planning a celebration of the U.S.-Canada gold medal hockey match he is betting will take place at the Winter Olympics in Sochi next month. If it does, it will be a replay of the game in Vancouver in 2010, which Canada won 3-2.
“Ovechkin won’t be happy,” he said. The Washington Capitals’ National Hockey League star, Alexander Ovechkin, is playing for Russia.
Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, said Doer’s political skill gave Manitoba, with less than 4 percent of Canada’s total population, a national profile befitting a larger province for the 10 years he represented the liberal New Democratic Party.
“He has contextual intelligence,” Thomas said in a phone interview. “He can read situations in a very insightful way.”
When he held office, he was a member of a liberal party. Doer is now the face of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s conservative government in Washington.
“I like to think that I tried to focus on results rather than process,” Doer said.
As premier, he balanced budgets as he also expanded educational opportunities by building new schools in the north and inner city of Winnipeg, Doer’s hometown, said Paul Vogt, a former top aide who is now a visiting scholar at the University of Manitoba.
Education was a priority for Doer, who left college to work as a counselor at a youth corrections facility, Vogt said. Post-secondary enrollment increased by a third during his three terms in office, he said.
“He’s a person of principle,” Vogt said. “He had a very strong sense of what brought him into politics and what he’s there to achieve.”
Doer also racked up victories on energy and environment policy. He pushed for the first wind farms and the construction of a transmission lines to sell electricity to U.S. states in the northern plains, and promoted ethanol and stricter emissions standards for automobiles.
Keystone is testing his salesmanship skills.
Critics -- including supporters of President Barack Obama - - say it would deepen climate risks by promoting development of Alberta’s carbon-heavy oil sands. Obama said in a June speech on climate change that he wouldn’t back the project if it would significantly increase carbon-dioxide emissions.
A draft environmental analysis prepared for the State Department said it wouldn’t, because Alberta’s oil sands would be developed even if the pipeline didn’t go forward. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for a fuller review. Environmental groups also challenged the finding.
The fact that it has become a symbol by which to measure Obama’s commitment to climate change may not bode well for the project.
Oil sands development is Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions.
“You have to be an incredibly good advocate to make the case that Canada is doing the right thing on climate,” said Clare Demerse, director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy group. “Clearly, Canada is not.”
Canada has “some work to do to get to our target,” Doer acknowledged, as he defended his country’s policies, noting that it had put in place rules that would lead to the end of coal-fired power generation.
Danielle Droitsch, director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada Project, said the regulations will allow coal plants to operate for decades. Canada is also much less reliant on coal than the U.S., where it generates about 40 percent of electricity. In Canada, coal’s total is around 15 percent.
“Coal is the U.S.’s problem,” Droitsch said. “Tar sands is Canada’s problem.”
In his push for Keystone, Doer has counted on relationships he developed as premier. The embassy held a reception on Feb. 23 for governors attending a National Governors Association meeting in Washington. Pointing to Alberta Premier Alison Redford, personable and unassuming, Vogt said Doer asked the group whether they wanted to get their fuel from her or Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president at the time who once called the U.S. an assassin. Chavez died in May.
“The Harper government has staked a lot of its reputation on getting the pipeline through,” Thomas, at the University of Manitoba, said. “I can’t think of anybody among our recent ambassadors who would be better equipped to make this happen, if it’s possible.”
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