Even a "no" on Keystone XL is better than no answer, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says, reflecting growing Canadian frustration with White House dithering over the proposed massive project to create a route to market for Alberta's landlocked heavy-crude reserves.
It marked a clear shift in Canadian policy. Barely 100 days ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed not to take "no for an answer" on the controversial and long-delayed project to funnel about a million barrels of Alberta's carbon-laced crude to refineries alongside Texas and Louisiana ports.
Now, in prepared remarks that were almost certainly vetted by the Prime Minister's Office, Mr. Baird on Thursday told an audience of U.S. business heavyweights at the Chamber of Commerce directly across from the White House that rejection is better than more delay.
"The time for a decision on Keystone is now, even if it's not the right one," Mr. Baird said. "We can't continue in this state of limbo."
That may not move U.S. President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly delayed a ruling on Keystone XL, not least because it was politically explosive during his campaign for a second four-year term in the White House.
In Ottawa, Thomas Mulcair, leader of the federal New Democrats, quipped that a sense of humour is required to follow the Tory positions on the proposal.
"Prime Minister Harper went to Washington before Christmas and said: 'I won't take no for an answer,'" Mr. Mulcair told reporters. "Baird went today and said: 'I'm ready to take no for an answer, but give me an answer.' I leave it to you to make sense of this."
For many, nothing about Keystone XL is funny.
Opponents of TransCanada Corp.'s $5.4-billion proposal say giving Alberta's vast reserves of oil a new route to world markets would spur massive expansion of what some regard as the planet's dirtiest oil. They have made Keystone XL a litmus test of Mr. Obama's credibility on his vague vows to curb greenhouse gas emissions to fight climate change.
"You and your children, and your children's children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions" on emissions, the President said last June, adding that Keystone XL's "impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project can go forward."
In his luncheon speech, the major public event of his three-day visit, Mr. Baird recited the Canadian government's arguments for approval of Keystone XL: that it would not damage the environment, it would create jobs, and would reduce the U.S. need to rely on unsavoury and undemocratic regimes for oil.
Without directly referring to massive explosions after trains carrying crude derailed, Mr. Baird said shipping "by rail causes higher greenhouse-gas emissions and raises the per-mile incident rate."
He also said Mr. Obama should approve the project because Canada's needs should matter to U.S. decision makers.
Approving Keystone XL "is a priority for an important friend and an ally of the United States," he said after a speech that included pointed references to Canada taking in scores of U.S.-bound planes after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Canadians fighting and dying alongside Americans on the "dusty streets" of Kabul and Kandahar, the Normandy beaches in the Second World War and the trenches of the First World War.
It was a speech to the converted. The U.S. Chamber has supported Keystone XL for years.
Still, Mr. Baird admitted in a brief news conference afterward that Ottawa is ready for a no. "Obviously, we have contingency plans," he said, when asked if a rail link from Alberta to a truncated Keystone XL that ended somewhere in the northern U.S. states might be a useful fallback. But he insisted Ottawa is still pushing hard for approval. "At this stage, we are going to put all of our energy and focus on getting the project a green light," he said.
Keystone XL may be a focus in the continental debate over the future of fossil fuels, but Canada's ambitious plans to become a major exporter do not depend on an outlet to the Gulf Coast.
"We want Keystone XL to go forward. It is important for the future prosperity of our country," Mr. Baird said, adding: "We want to build two pipelines to the United States' south; two pipelines east and two pipelines to the West Coast," he said.
With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa