What does it mean for Canada that Biden cancelled the Keystone XL Pipeline?

By: Ella Hartsoe

Unpacking Equity is a collaboration between the Public Policy and Governance Review and the Equity, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (EDPP) at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. This series aims to explain equity-related policy issues and break down complicated topics involving equity, diversity and inclusion. Policy professionals can gain a better understanding of these complex issues in order to incorporate an equity lens into their practice. To learn more, please get in touch with the EDPP.

What does it mean for Canada that Biden cancelled the Keystone XL Pipeline?

“Keep it in the ground!”

On Wednesday, January 20th, President Biden addressed curbing the effects of climate change, which he has called “the number one issue facing humanity.” Many Canadians have not been happy with the executive order that the President signed on his first day in office, however. The order signaled the halt of the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a 1200-mile project to move oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Long opposed by environmentalists, Indigenous communities on both sides of the U.S-Canadian border, and rural farmers across the Midwest United States, the project has finally been declared dead after ten years of struggle over its construction.

Source: https://sites.evergreen.edu/ccc/energy-domestic/exploitation-of-the-commons-standing-rock/

Immediately after the signing, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called for the imposition of trade and economic sanctions on the United States as retaliation. He declared that the executive order “is a gut punch for the Canadian and Alberta economies.” Articles like this one in the National Post have publicly considered “how we can screw over the Americans.” The Trudeau administration noted that “the Prime Minister raised Canada’s disappointment with the United States’ decision,” but Biden did not budge. Many people in Canadian politics, the media, and academic institutions have concluded that this executive order is a “loss” for Canada. Anxieties run high during a global pandemic where the future is looking bleak.

But in fact, Canada must immediately transition away from destructive projects like the construction of pipelines. It must reorient its focus on environmental sustainability and respect for the land, water, and air by taking leadership from Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island, and especially respecting free, prior, and informed consent of First Nations and Indigenous communities when it comes to construction projects on Indigenous lands.

The pipeline’s costs are high. Studies on Keystone XL have found that extracting oil from tar sands generates more greenhouse gases than extracting oil by more conventional methods. This means that both the extraction method and the use of the oil produced will drive an increase in greenhouse gases. Furthermore, the pipeline will certainly impact the dwindling wildlife populations in both Canada and the United States. Many of the animals that live in the area along Keystone’s planned route are endangered.

But most critically, as Dallas Goldtooth, an activist with the Indigenous Environmental Network, noted, “there’s clear science that proves that when it comes to pipelines, it’s not a matter of if a pipeline will spill and leak: it’s a matter of when a pipeline will spill or leak.” If Keystone is built, 830,000 barrels of heavy crude oil will be pumped from Alberta down through the continent’s heartland to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast every single day. It will only be a matter of time before the oil spills with disastrous consequences for the wildlife and people living along the pipeline’s edge. The most notable consequence of such a spill will be the contamination of drinkable water in the region for months on end.

This begs the question: who lives along the route that Keystone was supposed to traverse?

Like the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Keystone XL’s blueprints run through the Sioux Nation Lands. These territories are protected under the Treaties of Fort Laramie 1851 and 1868. Indigenous people have declared the infringement on Sioux territorial sovereignty to be an act of war by both the American government and the foreign company, TransCanada. Although neither Obama nor Biden has cited the violation of Indigenous sovereignty and legal obligation in their deferment of Keystone, we must consider the violation of Indigenous rights and livelihood the central problem with the pipeline.

Chris Bloomer, president and chief executive of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, has bemoaned the decade-long protest against the construction of Keystone. “It seems that no matter what the industry does, there’s no basis for a middle ground or compromise,” he noted. “The appetite among environmentalists to shut things down is insatiable.” What Bloomer and others who now defend the building of Keystone in Canadian media fail to realize is this: there is no compromise when it comes to the land. Many Indigenous people consider the land, water, and air to be close relatives and take the protection of the environment we all depend on to survive as a sacred duty.

The cancellation of the pipeline is ultimately a success won by Indigenous leaders in their long fight against Keystone. Goldtooth noted, “I feel ecstatic. This has been a hard fight for over ten years. It has involved so many people, so many First Nations, Indigenous folks, I can’t help but feel ecstatic that that fight and all the arguments that we made were vindicated, so it’s a tremendous win for us.”

Despite Indigenous rights being virtually cut out of the United Nations climate deal, Indigenous people continue to do the most vital work to stop monumentally damaging projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. Calls to “keep it in the ground” have echoed across the land for more than a decade in protest of a project that has now been stopped. The Canadian media, academics, and leaders must take a moment to pause and consider what they really mean when they say this executive order is a “loss” for Canada. Curbing the effects of climate change will require innovation, hard work, resources, and tangible sacrifices. It must be done with respect for Indigenous rights and sovereignty. We cannot continue to rely on destructive projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. Canada no longer exists in a fireproof house or a Nash equilibrium, waiting for other players to make the first move in some kind of hypothetical game that excuses us from taking action. Going forward, Canada needs to emphasize the consent and leadership of Indigenous nations and communities in this work. It will take focus and cooperation to make sure our children, and our children’s children, will have a planet left to live on.

Ella Hartsoe is a Master of Global Affairs student at the Munk School and is interested in Indigenous activism, global climate policy, and international law.

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