Keystone kops

After six years of debate, rulings, protests and pronouncements, the Keystone XL pipeline proposal is finally coming up for a decision. The Republican-dominated U.S. Congress will approve the pipeline carrying bitumen from Canada’s oil sands to the gulf coast of Texas. And President Barack Obama has already said he will veto the bill. The consensus is that there aren’t enough votes to override the veto so that’s it – Keystone is kaput.

To be sure, there’s a saying in Washington, nothing is ever over, so it’s entirely possible this issue will come to life again, but the likelihood of getting it built in my lifetime is slim. I blame Stephen Harper for this come-uppance. He never established the kind of relationship a prime minister should have with the U.S. president. Canada’s message did not get through. All Canada did was sent premiers and other lesser lights to deliver speeches at Washington events where Canadians made up the majority of the audience. There was no full-tilt selling job directed from the top.

But there is a wider message in all of this. The days of building new pipelines may be gone. Energy East, the latest proposal to ship oil from Alberta to a port on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is meeting stiff opposition from politicians and protesters alike. Pipelines from Alberta to the Pacific seem equally improbable given the native land claims involved.

All of this presents Canada with an opportunity. Why not stop trying to sell our natural resources to foreign lands? Such thinking is reminiscent of the “hewers of wood, drawers of water” syndrome that has plagued our economic history. Instead, let’s build refineries in Alberta and Saskatchewan where the resources are found. Refineries mean jobs, products that require more effort, chemicals and plastics that are in demand, all kinds of goods that are further along the production chain than the stuff that oozes out of the ground. With the demise of Keystone, Canada has its last best chance to become an economic powerhouse with industrial activity across a broad number of fronts. Let’s grab it.

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