Keystone: Obama changes the question. (This is big.)

(Sue Ogrocki/AP)

The (small number of) ardent climate-change environmental activists I follow on Twitter were not expecting Barack Obama to say a word about Keystone XL today.

In Washington at a Maclean’s-CPAC shindig in February, I suggested Obama’s inauguration-day mention of “executive action” against climate change might include his decision on the Keystone XL project, among other actions. The smart people on the stage — ambassador Gary Doer, former US embassy official Scotty Greenwood — told me I was being silly, and frankly had me convinced it was so.

And yet today in Washington, as he outlined the executive actions he plans, Obama included tough language on Keystone: no approval if Keystone contributes “significantly” to carbon emissions.

There will now be much parsing. The State Department report, which seemed to clear Keystone, will be dissected, as will the EPA response, which was less encouraging for Keystone’s proponents. But I’m struck by three things.

First, to repeat: Obama did not have to say a word about Keystone today, and even the Canadian activists who are most eager for him to stop the pipeline did not expect him to. He raised the question.

Second, his language was not friendly. He used the term “tar sands,” one the advocates of Canada’s bitumen sector have long argued is, by itself, biased against the “oil sands.” The argument can been made, has been made, will be made again in the days ahead that Keystone is no more a contributor to carbon emissions than an apple crate makes apples. But today Obama was sounding like those activists, including Al Gore, who do the math another way. This government likes to make fun of Al Gore as often as possible. Oh well.

Third, by making Keystone about carbon, Obama changes the question. The approval process until now has focused mostly on the integrity of the pipeline, the route chosen, the threat to the Ogallala aquifer, and so on. It was possible to have a pretty good debate about the merits of the pipeline without even mentioning that it would carry hydrocarbons prepared in a greenhouse-intensive manner. But now Obama has put that consideration at the centre of the decision.

Is this elaborate staging as Obama prepares to approve Keystone? Maybe. But the easiest way to approve it would be with as little fanfare as possible, and that’s not what we saw today.

What can the Harper government do? Perhaps this: Obama said the pipeline’s “net” contribution to carbon emissions would be critical to a decision. Demonstrating that Keystone-related emissions are offset by an aggressive program of carbon emission reductions would meet that test. It needn’t even mean a carbon tax, although it seems pretty clear that if Harper had implemented one of those or a meaningful cap-and-trade system in 2009, Keystone’s chances would today be significantly improved. Regulations with teeth would help too. So far that’s not going well.

Or Harper might prefer to take the loss, the better to portray the oil-sands industry as a victim of global nanny-statism at the next election. This would be the equivalent of his make-lemonade-from-lemons decision to brag, frequently, about how the United Nations didn’t deserve Canada on its Security Council.

But if the prime minister wants Keystone approved, I’m starting to think the government’s Go With Canada website, awesome as it is, won’t cut it.

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