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Transport Minister Lisa Raitt says the most important thing about transporting oil is safety. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt says the most important thing about transporting oil is safety. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada softens tone in fevered Keystone debate Add to ...

After years of visiting Canadian ministers talking of little else – at least inside the Beltway – Transport Minister Lisa Raitt barely mentioned the controversial and long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday.

Rail or pipeline, it doesn’t really matter, Ms. Raitt told a “conversation” hosted by the Canadian American Business Council, which promotes trade and business links between the two countries. What matters most is safety, she said when asked about Keystone.

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“The reality is this,” Ms. Raitt said, taking a long view rarely previously evident in the fevered Keystone debate. “There’s an increase in [oil] production in this continent and we want to make sure we are moving it as efficiently and as safely as we possibly can.”

She added: “All modes can be safe; all modes can mitigate the risks associated with them.”

Should Ms. Raitt’s understated tone focusing on the broader issue of getting North American oil – Canadian and American – safely to markets signal an end to years of strident, insistent Canadian demands that President Barack Obama approve the project, it will mark the third shift in Ottawa’s stance in barely half a year.

Last September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was bluntly and publicly calling out the U.S. President, proclaiming that Canada would not “take no for an answer” on Keystone. The wording was so tough that some in Washington questioned whether Mr. Harper had overstepped; in effect, saying Canada would not respect the long-established, democratic, U.S. pipeline review process.

Then in January, Foreign Minister John Baird changed tack, firing off a new – albeit equally strident – rhetorical salvo by saying Canada demanded a decision now, even if the decision was “No.”

“The time for a decision on Keystone is now, even if it’s not the right one,” Mr. Baird told the U.S Chamber of Commerce. “We can’t continue in this state of limbo,” he added, although it was not clear just what the Canadian government intended if, as expected, Mr. Obama was not stampeded into an immediate decision.

In notable contrast, on Tuesday, Ms. Raitt said softly: “I’m not here to give timelines.”

Perhaps Mr. Obama’s often-repeated message – most recently last month when he told Mr. Harper at the Three Amigos summit in Mexico – that the U.S. process will take its course, notwithstanding shrill or insistent demands by Canadian cabinet ministers and provincial premiers, has sunk in.

Making a decision on “Keystone will proceed along the path that already has been set forth,” Mr. Obama said in Toluca, Mexico, noting that his Canadian counterpart seemed to think that the U.S. process is “a little too laborious.”

The State Department review continues. Other U.S. agencies will weigh in, but the final decision will be made in the Oval Office.

Keystone XL was once touted by its promoters and Ottawa as a way for Americans to escape unreliable oil supplies from unsavoury Arab regimes. But soaring U.S. domestic production has all but erased the need for new supplies of oil imports and American environmental groups have turned Keystone and developing Canada’s vast carbon-laden oil sands into a litmus test of Mr. Obama’s vow to combat climate change by curbing emissions.

Just as Keystone XL’s role has changed – the oil it carries now seems destined for export, at least so detractors claim – so too have some of the major players in the long-running advocacy of it.

With Joe Oliver, the former energy minister and long-time lead Keystone cheerleader, gone to Finance and former Alberta premier Alison Redford just gone, the new cast of Canadian pipeline boosters may be deliberately singing from a different song sheet.

Ms. Raitt was still backing Keystone, but it was hardly front and centre.

She made no mention of the project designed to funnel upward of one million barrels of Alberta oil sands crude to Gulf Coast refineries until it was raised as a question.

In response, she said: “A lot of people want to boil this down to: ‘If you don’t put it in a pipeline, you are going to put it in railcars.’ … For me, it is about making sure that no matter what mode it’s going in, it’s going to be safe.”

As proposed, Keystone XL remains an “incredibly important piece of transportation infrastructure,” she said, adding that “if we have the capability and the wherewithal to build it, we should build it.”

Although many still expect Mr. Obama to make a decision on the pipeline in the coming months, there are as many who believe that he will – in Mr. Harper’s words – “punt” again, leaving Keystone undecided until after November’s midterm elections.

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

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