Harper will press Obama on Keystone

When President Obama heads down to sunny Toluca, Mexico next week, he might feel an unusual chill in the air.

The president is slated to hold economic and trade discussions with Mexican President Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper — the latter of whom is expected to give President Obama an earful over approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Canadian government has vocally advocated for the $5.4 billion construction project, with Harper recently calling the extension "inevitable.” That effort has only intensified since the release less than a month ago of the long-awaited State Department's final environmental analysis, which said the pipeline wouldn't significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions. 

State's review also found that oil sands extraction would continue regardless of whether the TransCanada pipeline — which would carry crude oil from Alberta to Gulf refineries — is built. 

The Canadian government has telegraphed Harper’s intention to raise the issue during talks with Obama.

Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, said he’d be “surprised” if the two leaders didn’t speak about the content of the environmental review.

“We want the president to chose Canada over Venezuela, hard hats over celebrities, a pipeline with fewer [greenhouse gases] over rail,” Doer told Platts Energy Week.

Doer warned that if the Obama administration opted against building the pipeline, it would be seen as a “political” decision by the Canadian government.

“If you play by the rules established by somebody else and you're perceiving this country isn't playing by the same rules they established… it would strain relations,” Doer said.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian embassy told The Hill that Harper "always raises the job-creating Keystone Project, and will continue to advocate for its approval on its merits."

But the White House says Canadian officials shouldn’t expect President Obama to provide any new insight into the approval process.

“I don’t think we will be introducing any new element or timeline to the [Keystone] decision” at the meeting, a senior administration official said Friday.

The State Department is engaged in a 90-day interagency review to determine if the pipeline is the nation's best interest, which will run alongside a 30-day public comment period.

Without any interference from Congress, or a stall in the review process, Keystone XL will land on Obama's desk by early June. But there’s no hard deadline for Obama to make a decision after that.

“I think what President Obama will do is explain to [Harper] where we are in the review of the Keystone pipeline and indicate, of course, that we will let our Canadian friends know when we’ve made a decision,” the senior administration official said.

The official said that the administration had “been very transparent about the way the process works” and that they believe “it’s important to allow this process to continue.”

“We understand the interest of the Canadian government on this issue,” the official said. “They've been very clear with us, as they have been publicly.”

Still, Harper is unlikely to be satisfied by the president merely detailing the schedule for a decision that has been relentlessly tracked in Ottawa.

The same can be said for proponents of the pipeline on Capitol Hill. A group of bipartisan allies in Congress, including Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) are pressing Obama to approve the pipeline, and hope the meeting in Mexico will help prompt results.

With crude-by-rail accidents becoming more frequent, lawmakers in Congress are arguing Keystone would help carry the growing amounts of crude oil safely.

The domestic producers are cranking out more crude oil than the U.S. is importing for the first time in roughly 20 years, placing a noticeable strain on the nation's energy infrastructure. 

Other lawmakers say the pipeline will create construction jobs, and labor unions have voiced their support for the project.

"The prime minister is going to bring this issue forward,” Hoeven said earlier this month. "This issue is coming up and one that could obviously create some significant pressure on the administration to come out with a timeline or make some decision. It may also help us trigger our effort in the Senate."

If the meeting doesn't spur action on Obama's part, Hoeven said Keystone XL advocates in the Senate are ready to pursue multiple options to push a decision. 

One possibility is legislation that would create a deadline for the decision, adding that if Obama didn't honor the timeline, Congress may outright approve the pipeline.

"If he didn't honor the timeline, or if he turned it down, that would create the impetus for Congress to approve it," Hoeven said.

The White House said a bilateral meeting between Harper and Obama has yet to be scheduled, although the senior administration official said he was “certain” the leaders would find some private time.

But the administration official did concede that the talks could be rocky — although for other reasons.

“While we always wish our Canadian friends well, we're quite confident in the American hockey team this year and their prospects to bring home a Gold Medal,” the official joked. “So I'm sure the president will have an opportunity to underscore the success we've seen from some of our athletes and our belief that the USA can bring home the Gold in hockey this time, because we're still smarting a little bit from how things turned out last time.”