Canada first – at least on new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's glad-to-meet-you list.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird flies to Washington Friday for a session with President Barack Obama's new point man on international affairs, and the topic of the day will be pipeline politics.
While the two will talk Syria, terrorism and whether the United Nations should mandate peacekeepers to patrol the wild reaches of Mali, the elephant in the room will be the Keystone XL pipeline, the long-delayed, multibillion-dollar project intended to funnel 830,000 barrels of carbon-heavy Alberta oil-sands crude across two provinces and six states to American refineries on the Gulf Coast.
Mr. Kerry, an ardent environmentalist, must make a key decision, perhaps as early as next month, as to whether to give the controversial project a green light – although any final decision is expected to be taken in the Oval Office.
"The pipeline is a critical issue for Canada," said David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, among Washington's leading think tanks on international relations, adding that the pipeline is far less important to the United States.
For the Obama administration, the Keystone decision is about signaling how it tips the balance between new energy projects and securing supplies from reliable North American sources. For Canada, the project is strategic and of huge economic significance. Without Keystone, development of vast Canadian oil sands will be throttled for lack of a way of moving crude to market. And the longer carbon-heavy crude stays in the ground, the less valuable it may become as alternative energy sources become more cost-competitive. "Opposition to the pipeline in the United States has nothing to do with Canada," Mr. Biette said, adding too often "Canadians forget this … [and] want to make it about Canada."
Still, pro-Keystone lobbying has been the No. 1 job for Canadian diplomats in the United States for years, and Mr. Baird is expected to underscore just how much the project means to Canada's Conservative government. "I look forward to working with Secretary Kerry to find new ways to create jobs, growth and opportunity on both sides of our shared border," Mr. Baird said in advance of the one-day visit, a reference not only to Keystone but to ongoing efforts to streamline cross-border trade.
Mr. Kerry, a long-serving Massachusetts senator, who first came to national attention as a young naval officer publicly protesting the Vietnam War 40 years ago, may be tough to convince on Keystone. At his nomination hearings, under pressure from pro-pipeline Republicans who said the project was vital to American jobs and that without it American security was damaged, Mr. Kerry shot back.
"The solution to climate change is energy policy," he said. In a forceful and extemporaneous response, the 69-year-old argued the clean-energy sector offered a huge boon to U.S. economic growth. "The opportunity of a new energy policy so vastly outweighs the downsides that you are expressing concern about," he told one pro-Keystone senator.
Canada's tough views on Iran and ardent pro-Israeli stand will also come up in the Kerry-Baird talks, officials predicted. Mr. Kerry may also want to know what Canada has discovered about the alleged involvement of a Canadian in the terrorist attack on an Algerian gas plant that ended with scores dead, including some Americans. The answer, according to those familiar with the case, is that Algeria continues to stymie Canadian police and intelligence agents who want to examine documents and tissue samples from the dead hostage-taker.
While visiting foreign ministers rarely make much of a splash in Washington, no matter how much media attention the visits get back home, Mr. Baird's day trip will at least rank as the first time Mr. Kerry has hosted one of his counterparts. Those bragging rights, both for prime ministers and foreign ministers, were long regarded by Canadians as almost a matter of right and evidence of just how special the relationship was – until George W. Bush invited the Mexican president to be his first guest. Even less noticed, at least by the U.S. media, will be Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, whose overlapping Washington trip is intended to rain a little on Mr. Baird's pro-Keystone parade.
"Canadians want a plan to cut greenhouse gases, reduce pollution and have a sensible energy strategy," said Ms. May, who intends to meet the media at a separate location soon after the joint Kerry-Baird session at the State Department.