Blogs & Comment

What really killed Keystone XL? The economic case simply faded

Keystone XL’s fate was decided by the Americans, for their own reasons. But TransCanada did itself no favours

What are we to take away from U.S. President Barack Obama’s formal rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline project on Friday? Is there anything proponent TransCanada Corp. and the Canadian government could have done to change the outcome?

Probably not. This was overwhelmingly a U.S. decision made for social and political reasons out of their hands, and without a sufficiently compelling economic argument to override it. There was a window in Obama’s first term, when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State overseeing the process, when the economic case was stronger—including a 10% unemployment rate across the U.S.—and KXL’s opponents had not yet marshaled their forces to equate the project with continued dependence on planet-killing fossil fuels in the public’s mind. But that window closed and the political calculus for the pipeline only worsened thereafter.

Keystone’s backers didn’t win themselves any friends with their arrogance and sense of entitlement, however. Former prime minister Stephen Harper’s characterization of the pipeline’s approval as a “no brainer” showed no respect for the other side (including opponents in Canada) and left them no opportunity for a graceful concession to defeat. Moreover the Conservatives’ lack of a substantive climate change strategy gave the Obama administration nothing to answer the environmental wing of its voter base for approving the project.

Meanwhile TransCanada’s insistence on business as usual—relying on the courts to clear its right-of-way for KXL’s southern leg (which was indeed built)—showed a similar lack of emotional intelligence and served to create enemies even in the traditionally oil-friendly state of Texas.

If there is a lesson for Canada’s oilpatch it is the dangers of its own insularity. So much of the oil and gas industry is concentrated on a few blocks of downtown Calgary that dealmakers don’t have to leave the Plus 15 system of indoor walkways to make all their meetings. They mostly come into contact with like-minded people and as a result misjudge or don’t register the societal shifts taking place in the broader population—even in their own province, as evidenced by Alberta’s provincial election result this year.

The KXL decision was not the bombshell on the oilpatch one might have expected. The already battered S&P/TSX Capped Energy Index was down just over 1% at midday Friday, and actually up on the week. Oilsands bellwether Suncor Energy (TSX: SU) was down less than 1% on the day. TransCanada (TSX: TRP) itself was off less than 5%.

A lot can change in the seven years this application process has dragged on. The slump in oil prices has forced a re-adjustment of projections for oilsands supply growth, which has made new take-away capacity less urgent than it was a year ago. However there’s a saying in the oilpatch that still applies: “Nothing cures low prices like low prices.” That is, in an industry whose sources of supply are constantly depleting, the lack of new investment will sooner or later alter the industry’s fundamentals. When that happens, you can bet pipelines will shoot back up to the top of the agenda, if not in the U.S. than certainly here in Canada. As a domestic issue, the industry’s approach will matter more this time. Let’s hope it is up to the task.