Less than a week after being sworn in as prime minister last November, Justin Trudeau declared that he was “disappointed” when the US State Department and President Barack Obama officially rejected the Keystone XL pipeline. University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe was disappointed too but his disgruntlement started a lot sooner than Trudeau’s. Tombe had spent years watching the pipeline debate become a major distraction from more serious discussions about the environment and energy infrastructure. For him, the demise of Keystone XL came as something of a relief.

This ambitious piece of infrastructure would have carried Alberta oil to the Gulf of Mexico but almost as soon as it was proposed some seven years ago the pipeline became a political punching bag. “People could visualize it, they understood what it is,” Tombe says. “It was relatively large so it felt as though it has a big impact on climate change and oil markets. This combination of magnitude and ease of understanding made it a very effective symbol, even though in the grand scheme of things it’s not that big.” 

Tombe adds that environmental lobby groups dedicated an inordinate amount of their time and resources to opposing the pipeline rather than promoting other policy objectives that could have had a much greater impact on climate change. He confesses that it is still not clear why they would take on the pipeline rather than push for a more sweeping measure such as a carbon tax, which would represent a significant and lasting approach to this problem. “It was a missed opportunity,” he says. “The policies that we could enact to make a meaningful change in the emissions profile of different countries would be to price carbon, price it broadly and price it in a sizeable amount per tonne. That would definitely change things but the number of groups calling for that kind of policy switch is few and far between.”

Meanwhile, near the end of November, the Alberta government announced an ambitious strategy to tackle climate change, which Tombe expects will help the province secure more sympathy for its future oil exporting ambitions. Those plans include pipeline projects that would see oil move east to New Brunswick and west to the Pacific Coast. Neither are done deals. As for the route to the Gulf Coast, he also expects another bid to move oil in that direction as well. “And it will probably get an easier time than Keystone has gotten,” Tombe says.