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Canadian liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters about his first official visit to Washington near Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Oct. 25, 2013.Susan Walsh/The Associated Press

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau admitted Friday that some American progressives were taken aback by his unwavering support for Keystone XL, the controversial pipeline regarded by many on the left as emblematic of big oil befouling the planet by increasing greenhouse-gas emissions.

"There were some people who raised an eyebrow … a strong young progressive with an environmental background talking positively about the project," he said, after attending a conference that included powerful critics of the project. Mr. Trudeau maintained his backing for the pipeline and said "perhaps it got some people thinking about the fact that perhaps it's not as bad as it has been caricatured."

Keystone XL is not just good for Canada but also for the United States, said Mr. Trudeau, echoing the Harper government claim that it will supplant some of the Venezuelan oil that comes to the U.S. Many see Alberta oil as "more domestic or local and secure sourcing," Mr. Trudeau said, adding that it also represents a "part of the working together of Canada and the United States."

"There's lots of American jobs involved and lots of opportunities for the United States" that come with Keystone XL, he said. "I'm not particularly worried about it being an unbalanced deal…it's part of a long-standing working friendship between our two countries."

President Barack Obama has repeatedly delayed a decision on the iconic project now widely seen as a test of his vow to take serious steps to combat climate change. With the U.S. now importing less oil than it has for decades and domestic production soaring, Keystone XL would provide still a vital market outlet for Canadian reserves but isn't crucial to U.S. domestic needs.

And Mr. Trudeau said there was no conflict between his positions pushing hard for Keystone XL – designed to funnel Alberta's vast oil sand reserves to America's Gulf coast – while vigorously opposing the Northern Gateway, which plans to send the same oil sands reserves to Canada's west coast.

"I'm open to pipelines but done in the right way and in the right place," he said, adding that Ottawa had approved the short sections of Keystone XL inside Canada.

"My support for Keystone is steadfast," Mr. Trudeau said on a Washington street corner Friday, close to the Canadian embassy. But, he said, there were "extreme ecological sensitivities" that made the Northern Gateway pipeline unacceptable.

On Thursday, making his first-ever visit to Washington, Mr. Trudeau met with senior Obama administration officials, including Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, and Jason Furman, who chairs the President's Council of Economic Advisers.

While hardly an Oval Office audience, the West Wing meeting signalled an arrival on the international stage for Mr. Trudeau.

"This isn't a protocol or ceremonial visit for me," Mr. Trudeau said, adding he had managed a range of working meetings.

The Liberal Leader made clear that he wasn't about to criticize Prime Minister Stephen Harper outside of Canada.

"The one thing I'm not going to do is air the many grievances I have with the Prime Minister when I'm on a foreign visit," he said of Mr. Harper.

Mr. Trudeau was asked about Keystone XL on Thursday morning at a conference of progressives sponsored by the Center for American Progress that included prominent opponents of the project. Later in the day, at the same event, former vice-president Al Gore launched a fiery attack on the proposed pipeline.

"This should be vetoed. It is an atrocity. It is a threat to our future," Mr. Gore said.

U.S. State Secretary John Kerry, who will make the first call on Keystone although the final decision will rest with Mr. Obama, said "energy policy is the solution to global climate change" during his address to the conference.

Mr. Trudeau was to return to Ottawa later Friday.

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