Ottawa is quietly using a well-connected Conservative MP as a direct liaison with the U.S. Congress to help build support for the Keystone XL pipeline project and a raft of other Canadian priorities in Washington.
Rob Merrifield is operating on a mandate letter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper that instructs him to represent Canadian interests to the legislative branch of the U.S. government on everything from the oil-sands crude pipeline to speeding the passage of trade through heavy American border security. Mandate letters are normally given to cabinet ministers.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's office says the Alberta MP has built up an impressive Rolodex of congressional friendships during his time as chairman of the Commons international trade committee and past chairman of the Canada-U.S. InterParliamentary Group that builds bridges between legislators in Ottawa and Washington.
The affable, soft-spoken MP's work complements the efforts of Mr. Baird, Canadian Ambassasor Gary Doer and Trade Minister Ed Fast in that he focuses his efforts on Congress rather than the executive branch of the U.S. government.
"The legislative arm, I would argue, is as powerful, maybe more powerful, than the executive branch," Mr. Merrifield said.
The Yellowhead MP estimates he now spends nearly half his working week on his U.S. assignment, which he was first given in early 2012. He's made more than a dozen trips to the United States on the file – most recently last week for meetings and the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast – to drum up support for the Keystone project, beat back protectionist Buy America measures and smooth cross-border trade.
The final decision on whether to approve TransCanada Corp.'s controversial Keystone XL project, which would deliver bitumen to the U.S. Gulf Coast, ultimately rests with U.S. President Barack Obama. It's Mr. Merrifield's job to expand support in Congress for the pipeline, which faces vocal opposition from environmental activists.
The Canadian MP said his message to members of the House of Representatives and Senate last week was that the U.S. should be relying on a good friend for oil instead of overseas interests.
"They're either going to buy cheaper oil from Canada, more reliable oil from Canada, or they're going to buy it from the Middle East," he said. "We're their greatest ally and some of these other regimes may not be."
Supporting the Keystone expansion would be backing a neighbour. "We command each other's troops on the battlefield, for goodness sake. Our supply chains are totally and intricately linked," Mr. Merrifield said.
He said Canada is trying to find more U.S. senators to come out in support of the Keystone pipeline. Fifty-three signed a letter urging its approval last month.
Mr. Merrifield said he's trying to arrange for a group of congressional leaders to visit Canada's oil sands this summer, and that Democratic Senator Joe Manchin has commited to bringing up fellow senators.
Mr. Merrifield said his assignment has taught him the value of finding private-sector allies in U.S. congressional districts, in order to make his case to members of the House of Representatives in Washington. Companies that share Canada's interests can make the case more forefully, especially to congressmen and women who face re-election every two years.
"What I've learned in D.C. is you can talk to them in D.C. but you can't change Washington from Washington," he said. "You have to make sure that everything that we're selling to them or talking to them about in Washington also resonates back in their district."
Supported by the Canadian embassy in Washington, Mr. Merrifield regularly reminds American politicians how much their states depend on trade with Canada. "I ran across a congressman from Maine who said, 'Well, NAFTA was never any good for us, causes us nothing but grief,' and I said, well, about 30,000 jobs exist in Maine because of trade with Canada."
On Keystone, Mr. Merrifield reminds U.S. legislators that the pipeline project would also help ship American oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Montana – petroleum that could comprise as much as 20 to 25 per cent of shipments. "Some don't even realize that it will include their own oil."