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WASHINGTON – One of the best-known anti-pipeline activists in the United States was busy refreshing her computer screen Tuesday night, enthusiastically seeking updates on a provincial election in Canada.
Americans don’t generally glue themselves to screens for Canadian provincial elections. The niche audience this time, however, was bigger, given that it produced a historic power-shift in the epicentre of Canada’s oil industry and source of the most-debated pipeline project in American history: Keystone XL.
So that’s how Nebraska pipeline-fighter Jane Kleeb wound up seeking updates on the Alberta election. She and her allies celebrated the end of decades of conservative governance and the first-ever NDP win in Alberta history.
“I’m very excited,” Kleeb said Thursday. Her reason for optimism: the Obama administration might see these results and find political cover to reject Keystone XL.
“Now we can say, look, people in Alberta, the home of where the carbon-intensive oil is, clearly have sent a message to their government. So what’s your message to us?”
Given the notoriety of Keystone XL, the results were inevitably seen in the U.S. through the prism of the pipeline fight.
The left-leaning MSNBC host Ed Schultz expressed hope it might stiffen the resolve of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to fight big oil: “It’s a political revolution that’s unfolding in Alberta, Canada. This is absolutely horrible news for TransCanada, as it could put the Keystone XL pipeline totally at risk.”
Salon’s website ran the headline, “Alberta just elected a bunch of Keystone XL-hating socialists into office.” The New York Times compared it to Texas electing leftists.
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The other side of the Keystone debate took note, too. The pro-business Wall Street Journal ran a piece speculating that the election could “pose significant new headwinds” for an oil industry already struggling with slumping prices.
Alberta’s next premier has said she’s not actually anti-pipeline. On Keystone XL, Rachel Notley says she’d just rather have oil refined in Canada than sent to the U.S. As for the Northern Gateway project, she’s against it on environmental grounds and she says she could support other big projects like Energy East.
One thing she won’t do, she says, is head down to Washington on pipeline-promoting trips like her predecessors.
That change could be felt in Alberta’s outpost in Washington. The four-person office includes two civil servants, a local staffer and a political appointee: former federal Conservative MP Rob Merrifield. A provincial official said that with the transition barely underway, staffing decisions haven’t been made yet.
An adviser to businesses on both sides of the border says he’s been fielding questions from clients.
Paul Frazer says he’s telling them not to worry about sudden, drastic change. He says he’s explained that Notley will spend a few weeks preparing a cabinet, then signal her intentions with a throne speech and finally launch a consultation on royalty rates before making any moves.
“I have every impression that the premier is a very pragmatic individual,” said Frazer, a former Canadian diplomat based in Washington.
“The American business people I’ve talked to, once we’ve had a conversation, sit back and realize they don’t have to panic. They don’t have to take any precipitous measures and can just watch this thing unfold.”
It’s even helpful, he said, for pro-pipeline Canadian politicians to stop banging the drum on Keystone. The head of a Canada think-tank in Washington agreed.
David Biette, head of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, also predicted the election fallout will wind up being less dramatic than some of the headlines.
“When when someone sees, ‘Socialists take over in Alberta,’ the instant reaction is going to be: ‘Oh, they’re going to destroy the energy industry,’ from pro-energy, perhaps more conservative people,” he said. “And it’s, ‘They’re going to stop the tar sands,’ from the pro-environmentalist groups.
“And it’s neither.”
When Americans ask what happened Tuesday, what will he answer? That Albertans were fed up with a party in power after 44 years, the Tories ran a poor campaign, the vote was split on the right and a charismatic leader won a historic victory on the left.