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NDP Leader Thomas MulcairCHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair won't advocate for – or against – the Keystone XL pipeline, the most contentious issue in Canada-U.S. relations, when he comes to Washington this week for talks with senior Obama administration officials.

"My position is that the Americans are going to sort themselves out based on their own rules," he said Sunday in a telephone interview, declining to offer either clear support for the pipeline that will funnel Alberta oil-sands crude to Texas refineries or urge it be rejected, as demanded by U.S. environmental groups. They regard the carbon-heavy crude as a potent source of greenhouse gases and thus a major and unnecessary contribution to man-made global warming.

Mr. Mulcair's studied ambivalence on Keystone XL stands in stark contrast to the ardent advocacy of the project by Canadian premiers and federal ministers in a slew of recent visits.

The New Democratic Party Leader's broader goal for the U.S. visit will be to signal to the Obama administration that it may soon be dealing with a very different government in Ottawa.

"It's the first time that the NDP is in a position to form a government and we're planning to do just that in 2015, so part of our work in the runup to that is to get to know the Americans and have them learn who the NDP are and what our history is and what our positions are … on a whole bunch of issues," Mr. Mulcair said on the eve of a three-day trip to Washington and New York. The trip will include meetings with leading Democrats as well as key officials at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization of American States and the United Nations. He will meet with White House officials but not the President.

His position on Keystone won't resonate with anti-pipeline groups in the U.S., who regard blocking the project as a key step in an effort to thwart development of the oil sands.

Mr. Mulcair wants Alberta's crude extracted, but sees Canadian energy needs as the priority.

"Keystone itself represents the export of about 40,000 jobs," he said, suggesting that a trans-Canada pipeline, including a link to a tide-water port for export, is the priority. "If you have a Canadian government that's acting in the best interests of all Canadians, then moving [Alberta's oil-sands crude] from west to east is important," he said.

He said he wanted to outline to Americans, "the NDP vision for the future," and that includes explaining his support for major national projects – such as a major west-to-east pipeline – that knit Canadians together.

"As a Canadian, I think that's exactly the sort of big-vision project that has brought the country together in the past whether it was in the 1800s, when it was the railroad that held us together and allowed us to start as a country, to the 1930s and 40s with social programs that defined us all the way to the 1960s with health care," he said.

"Long before we export, we should take care of our own energy security," he added.

The NDP Leader also plans to press the importance of minimizing delays and restrictions at crossings along the Canada-U.S. border which, in the decade since the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, have become a source of bilateral tension.

Mr. Mulcair will also meet Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat leader in the House of Representatives as well as other members of Congress before delivering a speech Wednesday at the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center.