Foreign Minister John Baird sought to tout Canada's 'green' credentials and highlight the Conservative priority on protecting the planet for future generations Friday, even as he urged John Kerry, the new U.S. State Secretary, of the merits of a controversial pipeline to funnel carbon-laden Alberta crude to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.
"When it comes to the environment, …. I think we have like-minded objectives," said Mr. Baird, seeking to dispel suggestions that Ottawa has overriding priority on oil sands exports irrespectively of the environmental damage attributed to the carbon-heavy crude. "Canada is aggressively moving forward on our plan to ban and phase out dirty coal-fired electricity generation," Mr. Baird added, in an effort to focus on Ottawa's efforts to cut man-made emissions responsible for global warming.
But Mr. Baird also made clear that the Keystone XL pipeline – a long-delayed, multi-billion dollar project to delivery 830,000 barrels of oil sands crude daily across two provinces and six states, remains of vital importance to the Harper government.
"Obviously the Keystone XL pipeline is a huge priority for our government and for the Canadian economy," Mr. Baird said, after talks with Mr. Kerry. The Keystone decision – deliberately delayed until after Mr. Obama won his second term in last November's election – is widely regarded by environmentalists as as a key test of the President's promise to made good on his pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
During his nomination hearings, Mr. Kerry had rejected Republican suggestions that Keystone was vital to U.S. economic interests by responding that the energy needs of the 21st century should be met by developing clean, solar and wind power. But on Friday, he was tight-lipped on his forthcoming Keystone decision.
"I'm not going to go into the merits here today," Mr. Kerry said, referring to the decision that is expected after a revised environmental assessment due next month. He promised the process would be "fair, transparent and accountable," adding he hoped "to be in a position to make an announcement in the near term."
Although the State Department review – required because the pipeline crosses an international boundary – is the next key hurdle, it is widely assumed that the final decision on Keystone will be made in the Oval Office.
Mr. Baird seemed keen to portray the two government as equally committed to the environment but pointed to other factors – he said – would flow from a Keystone approval.
"We all share the need for a growing economy to create jobs, we share the desire for energy security for North America, and we also share the objective of protecting our environment for future generations," said the visiting Canadian, the first foreign minister to arrive for talks with the newly-appointed Mr. Kerry.
In what will be music to Canadian ears – or at least the Canadian diplomats and energy sector lobbyists seeking to shape Canada's image south of the border – Mr. Kerry made a point of noting that Canada was the largest energy supplier to the United States.
"Most Americans don't know that," he said, and praised Canada as an important "global partner" on security issues as well as the United States largest trading partner.
Mr. Baird's effort to portray the Harper government as 'green' was roundly decried by Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who held a news conference barely an hour after the two men had concluded their talks. "John Baird comes to John Kerry with hands covered in bitumen goo," she said. "Obama has shown he is serious about climate change and that's not the language we have ever heard from anyone in the Harper cabinet," she added.
The two foreign ministers also spoke of the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and both voiced hope that a diplomatic solution could avert confrontation with the ruling mullahs in Tehran. "A nuclear-armed Iran (would be) the biggest threat to peace and security," said Mr. Baird.
Mr. Kerry said: "The international community is ready to respond if Iran comes prepared to talk real substance and to address the concerns."
Mr. Kerry, who speaks excellent French – or at least he did decades ago – gently declined to answer a question in one of Canada's officials languages at the joint news conference with Mr. Baird. During his rocky run for the presidency in 2004, Mr. Kerry had come under attack for his ties to France.
"Not today, I've got to refresh myself," Mr. Kerry said when asked to respond in French by a Canadian reporter.
The two men also managed to talk a little hockey. "We dove right into the toughest issues… we began with hockey," said Mr. Kerry, who played through college and as an adult. "I'm a Bruins fan," he added, and then needled Mr. Baird who, he said, is "from Ottawa (and) a fan of the Senators."
It was the first time, said Mr. Kerry, who spent nearly three decades as a senator from Massachusetts, that "I've ever heard someone talk well of senators, so – I'm grateful for it."