WASHINGTON - The U.S. government says it won't be pushed into making a decision on the long-delayed Keystone pipeline, suggesting Friday that the ongoing lobbying from its northern neighbour won't carry much influence.
That statement came from Secretary of State John Kerry as he stood next to his Canadian counterpart, John Baird, the foreign affairs minister who has used his three-day U.S. trip to demand a decision soon.
The secretary of state was asked about the pressure from Baird and from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has said Canada won't "take no for an answer" and will pursue the project regardless of the U.S. decision.
Kerry's reply: business as usual.
"Well, I always answer my Canadian friend, but I have to do it according to our administrative process and the rules and regulations under which I have to operate, and I think he understands that," said Kerry, whose department is leading the latest regulatory review of the project.
"We are currently engaged in the environmental impact statement analysis. An analysis will be made with respect to the national interest, ultimately. And we're just not at that point yet."
An intense level of public interest in the project and its possible ramifications has added to the complexity, Kerry suggested.
"There were a lot of questions that were raised in all of the public comment period, and those comments have necessitated appropriate answers," he said.
"The public has a role in this. We're all accountable to our publics. The democratic process demands that we do that."
How long will it take? Eleven months ago, just after he was sworn in, Kerry said he hoped to have an answer in the near future. Nearly a year later, he's not much more committal on the time frame.
"I can promise our friends in Canada that all the appropriate effort has been put into trying to get this done effectively and rapidly," Kerry said.
Baird spent three days in Washington pushing for a decision because he said the industry can't be left in limbo. He expressed hope for a decision in the coming weeks, lest another construction season be wasted. The industry, for its part, has said it's wasted money filling out paperwork and buying equipment that's sitting idle.
Industry insiders have also expressed shock at the degree to which the pipeline project — one of numerous ones across the continent — has become a political hot potato in the U.S.
Environmentalists, frustrated with the U.S. failure to deliver a national plan on cap-and-trade, view the Keystone decision as a litmus test for President Barack Obama's commitment to fighting climate change.
On the other side, Obama's opponents have used the issue to beat up on him on economic grounds, arguing that his foot-dragging represents a failure to deliver jobs at a badly needed time.
In the process, both sides have sparred over what difference it would make — to the U.S. economy, to the Canadian oilsands, and carbon emissions — if the project were approved or denied.
The State Department has reviewed the project favourably before, but has been tasked with undertaking a new study. It has a role to play because the pipeline crosses an international boundary. The pipeline would link an existing network to Alberta, collect more oil in North Dakota, and carry it to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
Baird made one more sales pitch for the pipeline after Kerry's answer.
He repeated that it makes economic and environmental sense. Advocates say transporting oil by rail is not only more dangerous, but more carbon-intensive. Baird also said that previous concerns about the route had already been addressed.
"Twenty-six months ago, (Kerry's predecessor) Hillary Clinton explained the concerns that the administration had, particularly with the aquifer in Nebraska," Baird said.
"We're pleased that the proponent has ... realigned the pipeline, gone through the process. We hope the final State Department report is out in short order and that the administration will be in a position to make a positive decision."
Her called it a "great project" for Canada's prosperity, which would also create jobs and energy security in the U.S.
"And we obviously want to see and look forward to a positive decision."
Baird and Kerry earlier met Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade.
The three said their meetings were fruitful and they came up with some specific items to work on ahead of a trilateral meeting among their respective leaders in February.
They pronounced themselves pleased with the success of the North American Free Trade Agreement and said there is no need to reopen it in order to accommodate other trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"I don't think you have to open up NAFTA per se in order to achieve what we're trying to achieve," Kerry said.
"The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, which all three of us are in, offer us the opportunity to strengthen the trilateral partnership and we're keen to use that opportunity to do so," Baird added.