A depot used to store pipes for Transcanada Corp's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline, Gascoyne, North Dakota, January 25, 2017.
Terray Sylvester / Reuters

Robert McNally, a senior energy adviser to former President George W. Bush, once described the process of approving pipeline permits as “the most boring thing in the world.” But where the Keystone XL project is concerned he could not have been more wrong. The campaign to build the 1,200-mile project through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska has spanned three presidencies, redefined U.S.-Canadian relations, and galvanized the environmental movement on both sides of the border. Even now—with global-warming skeptic Donald Trump in the White House, and Keystone XL seemingly near approval—the project will still have important political ramifications in Canada, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s green-energy reputation has been challenged by his role as international pipeline promoter. 

Given the strong opinions about Keystone XL that have formed on both sides of the debate, one might think that the project would fundamentally change the face of North America’s pipeline network. In fact, it would merely serve as an alternate route for the oil sands and crude that already travel within preexisting pipeline infrastructure, from Alberta due east to Manitoba, and then, following a 90 degree turn, southward into the American Midwest. Keystone XL would effectively be a giant hypotenuse that extends into a more or less straight line directly from eastern Alberta into Steele City, Nebraska.

Nevertheless, Keystone XL has always had huge significance for Canada’s oil industry because the capacity of the existing Keystone network has been maxed out. Alberta is completely landlocked—it is one of only two provinces that have no direct access to tidewater. Oil producers increasingly have had to resort to expensive and dangerous rail transport in order to get the fruits of the oil sands to coastal refineries. Although Trudeau has approved the twinning of the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, which extends from Edmonton to the British Columbian coast, more ambitious plans to construct completely new pipelines westward have met stiff resistance from British Columbia’s left coast environmentalists and from First Nations groups, representing close to 900,000 indigenous people, whose territorial claims cover much of the proposed routes. The approval and construction of Keystone XL is a game changer, because it means that Alberta producers will be able to move another 830,000 barrels per day southward with the stroke of a president’s pen. All of this helps to explain why Trudeau was all smiles when he met Trump on Monday.

In another age of U.S.-Canadian diplomacy, Trudeau might have flown back to Ottawa feeling like a great hunter returning to his village loaded down with fresh meat. Canada is a free-trading nation, hugely dependent on access to American buyers. Ensuring market access for Canadian products—from softwood lumber to beef to auto parts—has always been a key priority for every prime minister. Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, spent the better part of his tenure lobbying former U.S. President Barack Obama on Keystone XL. Now, suddenly, this valuable prize has been tossed into Trudeau’s lap by an American president whom many Canadians otherwise revile.

And yet, economics notwithstanding, Keystone XL is an issue on which Canadians are deeply conflicted. This is a country where even minor pipeline leaks generate alarmist headlines—especially in British Columbia, where the upcoming provincial election could be defined by the aforementioned Kinder Morgan expansion. (Critics of the project warn that it would mean an average of more than one extra oil tanker per day bringing toxic cargo through the waters of Burrard Inlet.) So although Trudeau was happy to stand with Trump in Washington, and to proclaim Canada’s shared enthusiasm for building up the continent’s energy infrastructure, the prime minister most likely won’t be trumpeting this accomplishment when communicating with his center-left base.

For the left, the fight over Keystone XL is about more than just the structural integrity of a long steel tube. (After all, the pipeline will run mostly through sparsely populated inland foothills and farmland; its state-of-the-art construction makes any sort of catastrophic failure extremely unlikely; and when completed, it will constitute just one two-thousandth of the United States’ oil-and-gas pipeline network.) For them, it is about saving the whole planet. In 2011, James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, declared that Canada’s “tar sands monster”—a somewhat apocalyptic reference to the energy-intensive methods used to liberate bitumen from oil sands—could mean “game over” for the earth. The prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben echoed such descriptions, as did Naomi Klein and other prominent Canadian activists. To this day, their continued opposition to Keystone XL and other pipeline projects remains the dominant theme within the Canadian environmentalist movement. 

This phenomenon, in turn, has sparked a strange inversion in Canadian attitudes toward the United States. Since the late 1980s, Canadian nationalists have tended to regard Canada as a socialist bulwark against the capitalist predations of the United States. Jean Chrétien, as Liberal prime minister, played on such stereotypes masterfully, as did his successor Paul Martin (albeit with less skill and consistency). But during the Keystone XL era, this dynamic was flipped on its head: Stephen Harper, an Alberta native, was a vigorous champion of both oil sands development and the Keystone XL. It was Obama who then took on the role of continental environmentalist-in-chief. And his 2015 decision to reject Keystone XL’s construction application was widely applauded by Canadian progressives, even if it cost Canada billions in lost oil income, and thousands of good spinoff jobs.  

That leaves Trudeau in a strange spot. On the one hand, he knows that if he doesn’t pursue cost-effective strategies of getting Alberta’s oil to coastal refineries, he’ll face a backlash from Western voters (who already have been feeling the pinch from relatively low oil prices). On the other hand, the leftists who helped elect him remain mobilized around the issue of climate change, and are deeply suspicious of the oil industry. Trump’s decision on Keystone XL goes a long way toward allowing Trudeau to solve much of that problem without even lifting a finger. Although the U.S. president might be alienating much of the world, Justin Trudeau, at this moment, has little basis for complaint.