Montreal, Canada – Justin Trudeau bragged this week that he was the first international leader to speak directly to Joe Biden after the Democrat was declared the winner of the United States presidential election.
The Canadian prime minister said he and Biden promised to work closely to strengthen the allied neighbours’ relationship, which political analysts say has been tested by the administration of Republican President Donald Trump over the past four years.
However, a conflict is already brewing over a contentious oil pipeline project that Canada’s government is pushing for, but that the US president-elect has pledged to nix once he gets into the White House in January 2021.
Set to stretch 1,947km (1,210 miles) from the oil-rich Canadian province of Alberta to the US state of Nebraska, the Keystone XL pipeline is slated to ship 830,000 barrels of oil per day between the two countries.
Environmental groups, Indigenous leaders and landowners along the route have voiced opposition to its construction, arguing that a spill would irreparably harm land and waterways and they have urged both countries to move away from oil exploitation projects amid the global climate crisis.
“What we have is a[n incoming] US government that’s sort of poised to do all sorts of big things on climate, including cancelling Keystone – and their biggest obstacle may prove to be the [federal] government of Canada and [the provincial government of] Alberta,” said Cameron Fenton, Canada team leader at environmental advocacy group 350.org.
“Those governments have shown that if there is one thing they will go to the mat on and work urgently to help, it’s pipeline and fossil fuel projects,” he told Al Jazeera.
Keystone XL has been a contentious project right from the start and legal challenges have held up its construction for years.
Former US President Barack Obama vetoed the project in 2015.
I’ve been against Keystone from the beginning. It is tar sands that we don’t need (and) that in fact is a very, very high pollutant.
Speaking to reporters alongside Biden, who was then serving as vice president, Obama said the pipeline would not provide a long-term boost to the economy, did not increase US energy security and did not help the fight against climate change.
But in 2017, Trump signed an executive order authorising Keystone XL to move forward. And last year, he signed a presidential order replacing his previous authorisation in an attempt to speed up the process.
TC Energy Corp, the company behind the project, which changed its name from TransCanada last year, said in March that the pipeline should be operational by 2023 and would inject $8bn into the North American economy.
“We thank US President Donald Trump and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney as well as many government officials across North America for their advocacy without which, individually and collectively, this project could not have advanced,” TC Energy President Russ Girling said in a statement at the time.
Biden, however, has promised to cancel Trump’s approval after he takes office, prompting concern from Canadian government officials and oil industry groups that had been pleased by Washington’s commitment to getting the pipeline built.
“I’ve been against Keystone from the beginning. It is tar sands that we don’t need [and] that in fact is a very, very high pollutant,” Biden said in an interview with . in May, just months before his electoral victory in the November 3 polls.
The project, Biden said, does not “make any sense” economically or environmentally.
‘Top of the agenda’
The Canadian government firmly backs the pipeline, however, and Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said last week that convincing Biden of the project’s importance is at the “top of the agenda”.
“We’re going to be making our case, saying that Canada is the most reliable energy supplier to the United States,” Champagne told the public broadcaster, CBC.
Ottawa is also under pressure from right-wing Alberta Premier Kenney, whose provincial government invested $1.5 billion Canadian dollars ($1.1bn) in Keystone XL last year.
Kenney said this week that Alberta is in “a war for [its] economic future”, local media reported.
He also said he decided to invest in the Keystone XL project because he did not trust Trudeau to complete construction on another contentious pipeline that will ship oil from the Alberta tar sands to the coast of British Columbia for export overseas, the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Ian Cameron, a spokesman for Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, told Al Jazeera in an email that the federal government “fully supports the Keystone XL pipeline”.
“This project has already created 1,500 well-paying jobs for Canadians, and we continue to advocate for its completion,” said Cameron, adding that Ottawa remains committed to fighting climate change, as well.
Fenton at 350.org, the environmental advocacy group, said nearly 10,000 people have signed an open letter urging Biden to stand by his promise and cancel Keystone XL despite what the Canadian government is saying.
“We wanted to try and make it clear that … our government and the fossil fuel lobbyists that they’re working with are not speaking on behalf of everyone in Canada, where the vast majority of people support increased ambition on climate and increased action,” Fenton said.
The brewing fight over Keystone XL highlights that though ties between the two countries will likely improve with Biden in the White House, “Canada will not be given a free pass”, said Donald Abelson, a professor at St Francis Xavier University and an expert on US-Canada relations.
I think there are opportunities for compromise, but there will certainly be some policy differences. There are those in Western Canada who are concerned about the amount of support they can expect from a Biden administration.
Donald Abelson, St Francis Xavier University professor
Canada and the US still have policy differences, including on trade and the energy sector, Abelson said.
“I think there are opportunities for compromise, but there will certainly be some policy differences. There are those in Western Canada who are concerned about the amount of support they can expect from a Biden administration,” he told Al Jazeera.
Still, Abelson said that despite those differences, the bilateral relationship will be better than it was with Trump at the helm in Washington.
“The relationship certainly between Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau will be far more cordial, it’ll be far more civil,” he said. “I think the Canadian government is very pleased with the outcome [of the US elections] and they see this really as an opportunity to hit the reset button on Canada-US relations.”