WASHINGTON - Two days after thousands amassed in the U.S. capital to protest TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline, the project's proponents gathered Tuesday to extol its virtues and accuse its foes of playing fast and loose with the facts.
The contrast between the two events was striking — a sea of placard-waving activists, citizens of all ages and Hollywood celebrities gleefully coming together to demand the pipeline's rejection compared to a panel of sombre, suit-and-tie-clad business executives who argued just the opposite to a small group of assembled media.
TransCanada "completely agrees" with U.S. President Barack Obama's recent proclamations on the need for swift action on climate change, Alex Pourbaix, a top company executive, told a roundtable hosted by the National Association of Manufacturers.
"But a complete transition away from carbon fuel is going to take decades .... the U.S. will be reliant on oil for decades," he said.
“So it's really a question of where the U.S. wants its oil to come from — does the U.S. want its oil from a friendly neighbour in Canada and domestic sources like the Bakken play, or does it want to continue to import higher-priced foreign oil from nations that do not support U.S. values? It is that simple.”
Pourbaix also disputed the primary charge levelled by environmentalists against the pipeline, which would carry bitumen from Alberta's carbon-intensive oilsands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
While environmental activists claim the oilsands are a "carbon bomb" that spew massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the Earth's atmosphere, Pourbaix said the emissions are in fact "globally immaterial."
"You could shut down oilsands production tomorrow, and it would have absolutely no measurable impact on climate change," he said. “The oilsands and their greenhouse gas emissions impact have been overstated."
Pourbaix and other stakeholders, including engineer Billy Rogers, all urged Obama to approve the pipeline.
“Working on the Gulf Coast Project has afforded me a good income that allows me to support my family,” said Rogers, who's currently working on the southern portion of the Keystone XL project.
“In addition, the construction of this project has had a significant impact in the local communities in which we work as the hundreds of crew members spend their money locally in restaurants, grocery stores, shops — everyone is benefiting."
Climate change is back in the U.S. spotlight after Obama called for action on environmental issues in both his inaugural address and last week's State of the Union.
Keystone XL has long been a flashpoint for the American environmental movement, but with the president now declaring climate change a legislative priority, the $7 billion project is being portrayed as an ever more dastardly villain and a symbol of so-called "dirty oil."
Pipeline proponents have been scrambling to fight back amid signals that Keystone XL is causing tensions in the Canada-U.S. relationship.
Pourbaix disputed suggestions on Tuesday that the pro-pipeline forces are losing the public relations war, saying they've got the facts on their side.
He also deflected questions on what TransCanada would do if the Obama administration were to exact something in exchange for Keystone approval, like a rumoured greenhouse gas levy imposed at the border.
Marty Durbin, head of the American Petroleum Institute, said any such levy would be "misguided" and would hike the costs of doing business for countless firms on both sides of the border.
Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said Americans by and large support the construction of the pipeline.
"If you want to know why Americans are frustrated with Washington, you only need to look at Keystone project and the inexcusable bureaucracy and red tape,” he said.
“In the State of the Union address and on the campaign trail, President Obama spoke a great deal about economic recovery and an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy policy. It’s beyond time for those words to be met with action. In a struggling economy, we must not pass up clear opportunities to create jobs and jumpstart growth."
The pipeline, he added, "has been held up for far too long."
"We need approval immediately.”
Obama rejected TransCanada's previous permit application due to concerns about the impact on an ecologically sensitive area on Nebraska. But Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, previously a Keystone foe, recently gave the thumb's up to TransCanada's new route around a crucial state aquifer.
The U.S. State Department, tasked with making the ultimate decision on Keystone XL because it crosses an international border, is expected to rule on the pipeline's fate this spring.