In an op-ed on NationalNewsWatch.com, the Hon. Peter Milliken, moderator of the 2013-14 season of the Great Canadian Debates, sets up the resolution "President Obama should welcome Canada's ethical oil." He writes that the nation is divided between those who support the development of the oil sands that the Keystone XL pipeline will serve, while providing a secure source of oil to the U.S., and those who see nothing ethical about irreparably damaging the environment for financial gain.

By Peter Milliken

U.S. President Barack Obama will soon make a decision about approving or refusing to allow the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

The pipeline is a system to transport synthetic crude oil from Alberta to the refineries in the Gulf Coast of Texas. If and when completed, the final two phases of the pipeline would cover a further 2,600 kilometres. These new sections would vastly increase the capacity to export Canadian oil to the U.S. market. Canada currently exports about three million barrels a day. This makes Canada the United States' major oil supplier ahead of Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. In this sense the pipeline will be of major benefit for both countries. The pipeline will provide increased security of supply for the U.S. and will bring considerable economic benefits for Canada.

But there is great division even in Canada as to whether the pipeline should be built.

The oil industry argues that Keystone will be the safest and most advanced pipeline operation in North America, bringing essential infrastructure to North American oil producers, needed jobs, and long-term energy independence for the United States. The Canadian government has also made the argument that environmental impacts are greatly exaggerated, in that the oil sands only account for 0.1 per cent of total global greenhouse-gas emissions. And transporting oil through pipelines is also a safer alternative than shipping oil by sea or rail.

Opponents to the pipeline are adamant that the risks are not worth the benefits. These risks include potential oil spills along the pipeline, 12 percent to 17 percent higher greenhouse gas emissions from the extraction of oil sands bitumen compared to extraction of conventional oil, and a concern that a pipeline spill would pollute air and critical water supplies and harm migratory birds and other wildlife. They feel Canada's government has weakened environmental regulations and compromised Canada's future in order to satisfy a thirst for billions in revenue from the oil sands.

Even though a number of Democrats in Congress oppose the construction of the pipeline based on U.S. policies promoting clean energy, a report in early 2013 on the construction of the pipeline by the U.S. State Department was neutral on the environmental impact. In the United States, opponents are also concerned that Keystone XL would not provide petroleum products for domestic use, but simply facilitate getting Alberta oil sands products to American coastal ports on the Gulf of Mexico for export to China and other countries. President Obama also made comments that the pipeline would create only about 2,000 permanent jobs when completed, a small number in an economy that has an unemployment rate of almost eight per cent. However, the President's numbers are considerably lower than other estimates including the U.S. State Department's Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement in March 2013.

Then there are concerns about aboriginal objections to the pipeline. Locally caught fish and untreated surface water would be at risk for contamination through oil sands extraction, and are central to the diets of many indigenous peoples.

It is expected that President Obama will make a final decision on the pipeline in the late spring of 2014. Until then there is considerable pressure from environmental groups in Canada and the U.S. to stop it. One prominent environmentalist and former NASA scientist, James Hanson, has said that if approved, it would be "game over for the planet".

Who is right? The environmentalists who believe the U.S. President should refuse Canada's oil, or Congress where there is bi-partisan support to go ahead with construction of the XL pipeline? That's the question in the first debate of the season presented by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute on the evening of October 24. At the debate, Ted Morton, former finance minister in the Alberta government and political science professor at the University of Calgary, will argue Obama should welcome Alberta's oil because it benefits both countries. Andrew Nikiforuk, who will argue against the resolution, is a veteran environmental reporter, a Governor General's Award winning writer, and author of "Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent."

This will be an exciting and crucial debate to kick off the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Great Canadian Debates series at the Canadian War Museum.

Former House Speaker Peter Milliken is moderator of the 2013-14 season of MLI's Great Canadian Debates. For more information click here

MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.