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Keystone XL Pipeline Benefits U.S. And Canada, Alberta Premier Says


Few issues have been as politically divisive in recent years as the Keystone XL pipeline. It's designed to carry crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. A bill approving Keystone XL should get final approval in the Republican-controlled Congress within the next week. The GOP sees it as a real job creator. The president, however, says he will veto the bill because the State Department hasn't issued its final recommendation on the project. Obama has brought up his reservations about the pipeline, like when he appeared on "The Colbert Report" in December.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Essentially this is Canadian oil passing through the United States to be sold on the world market. It's not going to push down gas prices here in the United States. It's good for Canada. It could create a couple of thousand jobs in the initial construction of the pipeline, but we've got to measure that against whether or not it is going to contribute to an overall warming of the planet - that it could be disastrous.

GREENE: Now, despite that kind of strong language, one of the pipeline's biggest supporters remains hopeful.

JIM PRENTICE: This has had a long and tortured road, so you never want to presume that you know exactly what's going to happen. But there seems to be a strong sense that somehow this will work its way through the U.S. political system.

GREENE: That's Jim Prentice he's the premier of Alberta, the Canadian province where Keystone XL would originate. He's here in Washington lobbying for the project, and he came into our studios. Prentice says the case for building Keystone XL remains solid. But he fears politics are obscuring the facts, like where this pipeline fits into the bigger picture.

PRENTICE: On both sides of the border, we have benefited from an integrated energy system that is the biggest and the most successful in the world. So when we talk about this pipeline, it's not just a single pipeline. It is part of an infrastructure that we've built over the last 50 years. That's given us the highest standard of living in the world. And so we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that what we're building together as North Americans under the Free Trade Agreement is an integrated energy system. And this is one pipeline. There are many others that perform a similar role. The purpose of this pipeline is not to carry oil to ports to be exported. It actually carries Canadian oil to American refineries that have been purpose-built to process the stuff, which creates jobs in the United States. So it's not just about the jobs of construction. I mean, this is part of a permanent industrial infrastructure that creates all kinds of jobs in the United States - in refining, in ports and so on.

GREENE: But this project specifically - I mean, we're talking about in terms of permanent jobs past construction - maybe just a few dozen. And you mentioned there are other pipelines that are doing sort of a similar thing. One of them is known as the Alberta Clipper, which was approved with very little fanfare and...

PRENTICE: Sure. I was at the opening of a pipeline in Freeport, Texas, 10 days ago - the Flanagan South Seaway pipeline which basically does the same thing that the Keystone pipeline does.

GREENE: So why did this one become such a subject of political mudslinging?

PRENTICE: Well, I think it's become a symbol, I suppose, of the exercise of authority by the president versus the Congress here in the United States. That's beyond my jurisdiction. But at the end of the day, I simply make the point that this is an important part of what we are doing together as North Americans. Our province - province of Alberta - provides 25 percent of the oil imports to the United States of America. We are the largest supplier of oil to the United States. That gives us energy security as a continent, gives us prosperity on both sides of the border. And it's something that's worth continuing to pursue. And it gives us not only geopolitical advantages worldwide, but it gives us the possibility to find an environmental advantage as North Americans that nobody else in the world has.

GREENE: But is it safe to say, if we look sort of both sides of this, on one hand, as you mentioned, there other pipelines doing the same thing. We're not talking about that many jobs in the United States. You know, on the other side of this, you know, the U.S. State Department said that this project would not make a significant difference, if any at all, in terms of emissions and global warming. Have both sides sort of exaggerated what a big difference this pipeline would make?

PRENTICE: Well, there's been a lot of hyperbole, I suppose, on both sides of the debate. But, you know, fundamentally the debate is about whether Canadian oil cared by market forces will be transported across the United States by train or by pipeline. Because under the Free Trade Agreement - I mean, this is a free-market product that's moving across the North American continent one way or the other. Right now, in the absence of pipeline capacity, it will be increasingly carried by railcars. That is not the safest way. It's not the most environmentally responsible way to carry hydrocarbons. And so pipelines are an infinitely better choice.

GREENE: What do you tell people who say, as many protections as you can put in place, there is still the risk of an accident with a pipeline - that water sources could be contaminated, like the one with another Canadian pipeline on the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It was the most expensive inland spill in United States history. What do you tell people who are worried about that?

PRENTICE: Well, the pipeline we're speaking of, the Keystone pipeline, will be built to modern standards. This will be as safe a pipeline as there exists in the world. And I think you have to compare pipeline transport to rail transport. And I don't think there's anyone who would seriously contend that it's a wiser way to move hydrocarbons in this kind of volume - to have it in rail. We had a rail disaster in Canada several years ago, which was a horrific, tragic incident. Nobody wants to see a repeat of that.

GREENE: You were an environmental minister for Canada.

PRENTICE: I was, actually.

GREENE: No one disputes that there are cleaner options for energy in this world that are being developed. Is that fair to say?

PRENTICE: Well, we all want cleaner forms of energy. But the truth is that the world is very heavily dependent on hydrocarbons. They are the most convenient, accessible, cost-efficient form of energy. And there's a direct correlation between the availability of hydrocarbons and your standard of living. So to be sure, we all want cleaner forms of energy. My province has more wind power electricity than anyone else in Canada, for example. But at the end of the day, if you look forward 50 years, there's no one who's seriously suggesting that we will need any fewer hydrocarbons than we do today.

GREENE: You said that you're here to make sure that the facts are straight. That's part of your mission in Washington. To what extent have facts been ignored in this whole debate over Keystone?

PRENTICE: Well, I think it was Hillary Clinton said that you have to be careful Washington doesn't become a fact-free zone, an empirical-free zone.

GREENE: (Laughter).

PRENTICE: There's been a lot of discussion about Keystone. It's surprising, in a way, just what a polarizing issue it has become. It is, at the end of the day, a debate simply about a pipeline. And I must say, I think there has been a value to the Keystone debate. There's a certain consensus emerging, I think, in American society about the project. People have a better understanding today about the North American energy marketplace and about the role that Alberta plays in that marketplace than they did four or five years ago. I mean, I think there has been some positive aspects of this debate.

GREENE: Premier Prentice, thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate the time.

PRENTICE: Great to be with you. Thank you very much.

GREENE: That's Jim Prentice. He's premier of the Canadian province of Alberta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.