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United States Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson smiles during an interview June 17, 2013 at his official residence in Ottawa.Dave Chan

Attitudes toward Canada's oil have shifted dramatically in the United States in recent years, as Americans increasingly view it as a key part of their own energy independence, outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson says.

After four years in Ottawa, Mr. Jacobson steps down from his post next month with the fate of a key piece of cross-border energy politics, the Keystone XL pipeline, left hanging. In Washington, it is a charged and symbolic debate: For many environmentally-minded Americans, approving the pipeline amounts to approving more burning of Canada's "dirty oil."

But the outgoing U.S. envoy said Americans' perception has changed in many ways – including the dawning realization that energy from north of the border, seen by many Americans as akin to domestic supply, is very important to the U.S.

"One of the ways it's changed is that I think a lot more Americans understand how much of our energy comes from Canada," Mr. Jacobson said in an interview at his Ottawa residence. "Clearly, there is an issue with respect to the oil sands, and I don't want to diminish it. But I think another piece of the public perception in the United States is just how important a foreign supplier of energy Canada is."

Mr. Jacobson made clear that his comments are not intended to hint at the Obama administration's decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. That, he repeats, is winding its way through a regulatory process in the U.S. and it is Mr. Jacobson's still-unnominated successor who will deal with the fallout from that pipeline decision, which is ultimately in the hands of President Barack Obama.

But Americans are belatedly waking to the impact of energy from Canada, which supplies 28 per cent of the foreign oil imported in the U.S.

"If you asked 10 Americans, 'Who is our largest foreign supplier of oil? Ten of them would say Saudi Arabia. [But] Saudi Arabia is second at 12 per cent," he said. "And I think more and more Americans are understanding just how much of our oil comes from Canada."

"It's almost like it's not a foreign supplier of energy. It's part of our regular flow of energy. And if there's one thing that I think Americans understand and agree on, it is that in the whole world, if we have to import energy, there is not a safer and more secure source of foreign energy than Canada," he said. "That has to be traded off against some other things, but that's something that's very important to Americans."

For Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government, however, it has been a frustrating and slow process on an issue they deem to be their top priority in Canada-U.S. relations. Mr. Harper has called the decision a "no-brainer," and launched a Canadian lobby effort in the U.S.

"I think that they have been very careful, and wisely so, to stay out of the political process, the regulatory process in the United States," he said. "I think what they are trying to do is to try to see to it both that [U.S.] government officials understand the facts, which I think we do. And that the public understands the facts as the Canadians see them. … I don't have an issue at all with what they are doing. This is an important issue to Canada. The Prime Minister, I can assure you, regularly raises this issue with the President, pretty much every time he sees him."

But it is an issue, he said, that still belongs in context – and which should not be exaggerated as a do-or-die test of relations.

There are four major "buckets" of issues in Canada-U.S. relations, he said – trade, border traffic, energy and the environment, and foreign policy. His tenure as ambassador was marked by the signing of a Canada-U.S. border accord that has officials hammering out new measures that, he insists, are gradually improving security and speeding up traffic waiting times.

It is perhaps the biggest single, visible achievement of Mr. Jacobson's tenure as ambassador, but one that never carried the high-profile tension of pipeline politics. Mr. Jacobson acknowledges that it will be up to his his successor – rumoured to be Chicago investment banker Bruce Heyman – to field the controversy of the Keystone decision. "That will be an issue that my successor will have to deal with. But I also think there are other issues, and the totality of issues, that are more important," he said.

"Even Keystone – even Keystone – has to be taken into account for what it is and what it is not. And that fundamentally, this is a relationship that will go on for generations and generations to come between the Canadian people and the American people."

A new ambassador?

U.S. President Barack Obama hasn't yet nominated a successor to outgoing Ambassador David Jacobson, who leaves the embassy July 15 to take a new post as vice-chair of the Bank of Montreal.

But the name of the man being vetted for the job has already been leaked: He's Bruce Heyman, a Goldman Sachs executive from Chicago who, like Mr. Jacobson, was an Obama campaign fundraiser. He's one of the few top investment bankers who stuck with Mr. Obama in 2012.

Mr. Heyman and his wife, Vicki, have been a political power couple for three decades. They were among Mr. Obama's top fundraisers, collecting and contributing $1.7-million to the President's bid for a second term.

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