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Harper to increase pressure on Obama for Keystone approval

A man stand next to advertisements promoting Canada as a preferable oil provider for America at a metro station in Washington January 29, 2014.

YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS

Stephen Harper will take his campaign for the Keystone XL pipeline to the presidential level during mid-February meetings with Barack Obama now that a key hurdle has been removed for White House approval of the project.

The development ushers in a new phase of Canadian diplomacy for a $5.3-billion project that has become the defining issue for Canada-U.S. relations today.

The Prime Minister will make the Keystone case personally to Mr. Obama in Toluca, Mexico, on Feb. 19 as part of the North American Leaders' Summit, sources say. The pipeline, which would carry Alberta oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast, is now a prime target for U.S. environmental activists who warn it will contribute to global warming.

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A new U.S. State Department environmental report released on Friday appeared to give a green light to Keystone XL when it predicted the pipeline would have little impact on greenhouse gas emissions from the Canadian oil sands. Mr. Obama had previously said he wouldn't approve the project if it contributed to global warming.

Determined to press the advantage, Mr. Harper's Conservative Party released an Internet ad Friday afternoon that attacked American critics and warned scrapping Keystone would leave the oil-hungry United States relying on "unstable supply from far-off countries."

Despite the positive report, the project still faces a political gauntlet in Washington. The Environmental Protection Agency and other departments have up to 90 days to issue comments. An internal probe is looking into whether a contractor who worked on the report was in a conflict-of-interest. And then the matter goes to Mr. Obama.

In the weeks ahead, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and cabinet colleagues will promote the economic benefits of pipeline construction amid a weak recovery in the U.S. – emphasizing that it would create tens of thousands of American jobs and billions of dollars of business activity.

The Canadian embassy in Washington will press the case on the ground in the U.S., building support for the project in communities along the proposed American route.

Much as they assembled U.S. political support for a new bridge between Windsor and Detroit, Canadian diplomats are working to shore up grassroots enthusiasm for the Keystone project in American towns and cities that would benefit from building the pipeline. They're meeting with blue-collar workers as well as veterans groups, pitching the jobs for labourers and former soldiers and reminding them the crude will be coming from a stable ally of the U.S. rather than a Mideast hot spot.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador in Washington, said.

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Rob Merrifield, the Conservative MP appointed by Mr. Harper as direct liaison with the U.S. Congress, said he finds impatience in Congress for Mr. Obama to act. There's overwhelming bipartisan support for Keystone in the House of Representatives, he said, and in the Senate, many Democrats are eager to see Keystone resolved before midterm-election fights with Republicans in November. "Congress is becoming less tolerant in sitting back and waiting for the President."

Mr. Merrifield said a chief selling point he will use to build U.S. support in the weeks and months ahead is the comparative safety of shipping oil by pipeline instead of by rail car. He cites the Lac-Mégantic, Que., derailment as an example, talking about the highly volatile oil "that killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic," he said. "Every community across North America is built up around railways and these railways go through the heart of these communities."

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said he thinks the economic case for Keystone has been settled and Canada needs to concentrate on demonstrating to U.S. decision-makers that this country is an environmentally sound source of energy. He said Canadians need to promote what they've done to make resource extraction more sustainable, from cleaner coal technology to stricter oil and gas regulations.

The biggest factor for the Obama administration, he noted, remains the environmental side of the Keystone debate.

"We need to make the environmental case," Mr. Wall said. "That is where they will have the most political pressure."

The Premier said he believes Canadians should also press the point with Americans that oil-sands crude will be shipped to U.S. customers by rail if the Keystone pipeline proposal is blocked.

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"This oil is going to move. It will find a way," Mr. Wall said. "If pipelining is truly the comparatively safest way to do this, the impact of a 'No' from the American administration may actually achieve what they" hope, he said.

With reports from The Canadian Press

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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