Nancy Pelosi, one of Washington's most powerful Democrats, has signalled that she is skeptical about the benefits of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would send heavy crude from Alberta's oil sands across the United States to refineries on the Gulf Coast.
"It just is amazing to me that [Keystone advocates claim the project would create] 'tens of thousands of jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,' " Ms. Pelosi said during a press briefing Thursday in the Capitol.
"The oil is for export and the jobs are nowhere near that."
And in publicly raising doubts about the value of Keystone in terms of jobs and U.S. energy security, Ms. Pelosi also infuriated Conservatives in Canada, who charged that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair is attempting to undermine a vital energy project.
Ms. Pelosi said she had just met with Canadian legislators – Mr. Mulcair and two other New Democratic Party MPs met the Democratic leader Tuesday in the House of Representatives – and "Canadians don't want the pipeline in their own country."
A person who was in the room during the Tuesday meeting between Mr. Mulcair and Ms. Pelosi confirmed that sentiment was voiced.
"Those were Nancy Pelosi's words, not Mr. Mulcair's," he said, speaking on condition that he not be further identified.
Mr. Mulcair said during his visit to Washington that Ms. Pelosi had told him her position on Keystone, but he declined to reveal it, saying the confidentiality of their conversations precluded it.
President Barack Obama is expected to make a decision this summer on the proposed pipeline – which has become a deeply divisive issue within the Democrat base, pitting environmentalists against those who favour job creation and energy security.
In Canada, the energy sector sees the plan to build a pipeline from northern Alberta to the refineries on the cost of the Gulf of Mexico as an important way to ship oil to its biggest customer amid a shortage of routes that is forcing down prices.
In response to the report that Mr. Mulcair had said the Keystone project would run through the United States because Canadians didn't want a pipeline at home, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird accused Mr. Mulcair of "trash talking" Canada and trying to undermine a broad effort to win approval for the plan. "If it's true," he said in British Columbia, "then it's profoundly disappointing."
In an interview, Mr. Baird said: "To have someone who wants to be prime minister of Canada, essentially bad mouthing Canada in Washington [amounts to] trash talking Canada and the Canadian economy."
However, the minister conceded: "I wasn't there," adding, for Mr. Mulcair "to be running down Canada on foreign soil as such a sensitive time … I just shake my head."
Mr. Mulcair was flying from New York to Ottawa on Thursday evening and couldn't be reached to respond to Mr. Baird's comments.
In his public appearances during his three-day visit to Washington and New York, Mr. Mulcair has repeatedly said he favours a west-to-east Canadian pipeline while declining to take a position on Keystone.
Asked if Mr. Mulcair had said Canadians oppose a pipeline in their own country, the person at the Pelosi meeting said, "absolutely not," adding that he was not authorized to speak for either principal.
The brouhaha threatened to create a political firestorm in Ottawa over a visit that passed with barely any notice in the United States.
Measured by its splash in the U.S. media, Mr. Mulcair's three-day trip to Washington and New York vanished without a trace.
But plenty of premiers and even the Prime Minister have managed to go to Washington without registering much notice in the U.S. media. So the impact of Mr. Mulcair's visit may take time to measure. He came, he said, to lay down a marker, to make clear to Washington insiders and power brokers that the NDP is ready to form Canada's next government.
"As with anything in Washington, one visit does not constitute a relationship," said David Biette, director of the Canada Institute, where Mr. Mulcair delivered a speech outlining his vision of Canada restored to what he called its rightful place in a multinational world were sustainable development was central to both domestic and foreign policy.
"Mulcair will have to come to Washington regularly to develop the kinds of relationships he desires and will need," Mr. Biette added.
So while the Opposition Leader chalked up meetings at the Organization of American States and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as with White House officials, the crowning achievement of the visit was the session with Ms. Pelosi, the powerful Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. Mr. Mulcair enthused about the Pelosi audience, saying, 'there's a lot of connectedness between a senior Democrat like Madam Pelosi and the New Democratic Party."
That was before the furor over their conversation.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Mulcair, judged his visit a success: "We succeeded in our main goal, which was to introduce the NDP to key decision makers, such as politicians, officials, diplomats and business leaders," he said in an e-mailed response on Thursday. "We are looking forward to continuing to work with our American friends and partners."
Mr. Mulcair also met with business leaders, a group not usually enamoured with the NDP. Yet he got the approval of Emma Rigby, Executive Director of the Canadian-American Business Council.
"There was lots of interest, I think he was very well received," she said Thursday.
Talks included "topics of concern to our members such as regulatory co-operation, sustainable development and North American energy security," she added.
At another closed-door session, at the extremely well-connected Centre for American Progress, perhaps Washington's leading left-of-centre think tank, Mr. Mulcair met with "labour groups and other progressives," according to a source who attended the session.
"People took him very seriously," said the attendee, who agreed to speak on condition that he not be further identified. "Even those in the United States who can't figure out why the left in Canada, the Liberals and the NDP, can't seem to get along, wanted to hear him out."
Part of that process, he continued, was that in the United States, the Democrats consider themselves "a pretty big tent," so Canada's multi-party reality of several left-of-centre parties requires some explanation.
"Still," he added, "Mulcair was viewed credibly and people were impressed."
Mr. Biette said the NDP Leader was also a bit unlucky in terms of competing for media attention. "News on his visit was trumped yesterday by the Marc Garneau news in Canada, and largely by the news of the new Pope," he said, adding: "The substance of the visit needs to be directed towards his interlocutors, and not necessarily to the folks back home."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Executive Director of the Canadian-American Business Council as Emma Marks. In fact, Emma Rigby is the Executive Director of the Canadian-American Business Council. This online version has been corrected.