WASHINGTON — Stephen Harper heads to the White House on Wednesday to unveil a long-awaited border security agreement with U.S. President Barack Obama, but the visit comes at a particularly tense moment in Canada-U.S. relations as TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline saga rages on.
The $7 billion project, shelved at least temporarily by the Obama administration just a month ago, is being resurrected as a front-burner issue on Capitol Hill this week due to congressional Republicans who want to see the project win federal approval before, not after, next November’s presidential election.
Harper and Obama discussed Keystone during the APEC summit in Hawaii, meaning Keystone XL may not be a top item of discussion this time around.
But the fate of the pipeline will likely be discussed at some point, given recent developments that have served as a stark reminder that unfettered access to the U.S. market by Canadian businesses is far from guaranteed, regardless of the new Beyond The Border initiative aimed at intelligence-sharing, streamlining cross-border trade and co-ordinating regulations.
“Keystone will come up, but whether or not we can expect any movement? I’d be surprised to see that,” said Laura Dawson, a policy scholar at the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“There are a lot of political calculations in play right now, and pressure from Canada will not likely speed anything up.”
Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who spent time in Washington forging ties with top U.S. lawmakers as a Canadian embassy official, said the prime minister will likely repeat his usual pitch on Keystone to Obama.
“I think he’ll reiterate it’s a no-brainer, you need this stuff, and then ask the president how he thinks the whole thing is going to play out in the end.”
Harper, a veteran of two minority governments, understands the politics behind punting the Keystone XL decision until after the presidential election, Robertson added.
The controversial project was at the centre of high-profile anti-pipeline protests outside the White House for weeks this past summer and fall, resulting in the arrests of movie stars and environmentalists.
“They didn’t like that noise, that ring around the White House, and they wanted to change the channel, which they have,” he said.
“I think everyone understands that the political decision was made out of Chicago, not Washington, and was motivated by re-election issues. And Stephen Harper certainly understands the politics, so I don’t think, privately, there’s any difficulty appreciating the spot Obama’s in.”
Republicans in the House of Representatives, indeed, are attempting to box Obama into a corner on Keystone XL. They’re attaching to their payroll tax cut legislation — clamoured for by both the White House and Democrats — a provision that would take the Keystone decision out of the president’s control by handing it to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The aim is to force a speedy approval for Keystone XL. The House bill is expected to pass in the next two weeks; it will then head to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it will face a tough fight.
It’s yet more pipeline drama in the U.S. capital as Harper arrives to announce details of the border deal that will focus on co-operation, not conflict, between the world’s two biggest trading partners.
But even though Keystone XL has become a political hot potato, the border deal proves the strength of the bond between Americans and Canadians, Dawson said.
“The Canada-U.S. relationship is such a mature and integrated relationship that really, there is very little we can do at summits or during executive level talks — it’s at the local, state, and business level where things get accomplished, and then we turn to the political level to bless it,” Dawson said.
“The border deal is a good example of that. There was technical level co-operation on a number of fronts, with people at municipal and state and provincial levels really hammering this deal out. The fact that we got this deep in the weeds to come up with this agreement shows how strong the ties are.”
But one source with knowledge of the negotiations on the deal said Canadian businesses, in particular, are cynical about Beyond The Border, believing nothing much will change thanks to firmly entrenched U.S. red tape or lawmakers still nervous about national security in the post-9-11 world.
Harper is being advised to follow through aggressively on the deal or risk it becoming a non-entity. The source said the Tories will have to be particularly proactive given the coming end of Obama’s first term — after which there could either be new cabinet secretaries, or a Republican president with an entirely different new cast of political characters.
Keystone proponents, anyway, have Republicans in their corner as they try to strong-arm Obama into green-lighting the pipeline as soon as possible.
Lee Terry, a congressman from Nebraska helping to spearhead Republican pro-pipeline efforts, defended the attempt to move the decision-making process from the White House to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“FERC is all about energy and reliability and are the experts in pipelines,” he told Environment and Energy Television on Tuesday.
“So, I want to take it out of the politics that have developed around the State Department and the White House and move the authority for the permit to an agency that really knows energy…. FERC, with their level of experience, will see that this is the most safely built pipeline with the most environmental route and will permit it.”
On the eve of Harper’s visit, five U.S. senators — an independent and four Democrats — urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to stop the Republicans. Reid will broker any final deal between Republicans and Democrats on extending payroll tax cuts.
“We strongly oppose the inclusion of provisions that require approval of this pipeline in an arbitrary time frame in any legislative package moving forward in the Senate,” Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ron Wyden, Patrick Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse and Frank Lautenberg wrote in a letter to Reid on Tuesday.
The Republican plan amounts to a mere “rubber stamp” for TransCanada, the letter read, and would “short-circuit the legally required environmental review process.”
But Terry is defiant.
“I want Canadian oil (and) our friends just across the border from us to be able to sell their oil to us,” he said.