Foreign Minister John Baird met with senior White House officials and key U.S. lawmakers Wednesday to make Canada's pitch for an early decision on the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline.
While in Washington for a three-day visit, Mr. Baird was also laying the groundwork for the forthcoming trilateral summit of Canadian, Mexican and U.S. leaders in Mexico next month.
After a morning session at the White House with Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Mr. Baird spent much of the day pitching for the approval of Keystone XL, saying it was "decision time." However, Mr. Obama has shown no urgency to make a decision on the controversial pipeline.
On Thursday, Mr. Baird will deliver a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the business groups ardently backing the TransCanada's $5.8-billion pipeline to funnel upwards of one million barrels of Alberta oil sands heavy crude daily to huge refineries alongside Gulf ports in Louisiana and Texas.
Mr. Baird will "highlight the success of the Canada-U.S. relationship as well as the economic relationship set forward in NAFTA," said a person familiar with a draft of Thursday's luncheon speech. It will also deal with "broader partnerships over history between Canada and the United States."
Still, even with the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that has largely redefined relations between the three nations, contentious bilateral issues – Keystone XL for Canada and immigration for Mexico – continue to bedevil relations with the United States.
On Wednesday, Mr. Baird made what has become the almost-regular rounds for visiting Canadian premiers and federal ministers, paying calls to key pro-Keystone-XL players.
He had talks with North Dakota's Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat and strident backer of Keystone XL, which would move North Dakota's burgeoning light oil production as well as Alberta's heavy oil sands crude. Mr. Baird also met with Louisiana's Senator Mary Landrieu, another Democrat, who is the likely next chair of the powerful Senate Energy Committee, and Alaska's Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is pressing for an end to the current ban on U.S. crude oil exports.
The senior state department official said energy is expected to be among the top issues at the so-called "Three Amigos" summit hosted by President Enrique Pena Nieto in February.
With U.S. domestic oil production soaring – so much so that massive new reserves such as the huge Bakken fields in North Dakota are straining existing infrastructure and prompting new calls to lift the ban on U.S. crude exports – some of the most compelling reasons to approve Keystone XL to meet U.S. demand have long since faded. President Barack Obama has repeatedly punted on the politically contentious project and senior administration officials no longer even hint at a decision date, let alone whether an approval is likely. Meanwhile, environmental groups and other opponents of the pipeline, who fear it will spur massive development of Alberta's vast heavy oil reserves by providing a ready route to export markets and world prices, have turned Keystone XL into a test of Mr. Obama's credibility on taking steps to curb global warming caused by greenhouse-gas emissions.
"Some time in the foreseeable future there will be a decision on Keystone," a senior State department official said Wednesday. She added that the whole vexed issue of climate change and what the three big North American countries could do collectively would also be on the Three Amigos agenda. Mr. Baird said he expected the State Department's final environmental impact statement will be released some time after Mr. Obama's Jan. 28 State of the Union address. But any final decision will be made in the White House.
In advance of the summit, Secretary of State John Kerry will host his two foreign minister counterparts on Friday. Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Baird will hold trilateral talks and then Mr. Kerry will hold bilateral sessions with the Mexican and Canadian ministers.
Mr. Baird also plans to meet with Israel's ambassador to Washington before flying to the Middle East on Friday in advance of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's trip to the region.