There were questions at both the White House and State Department daily briefings Thursday about Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird — a rare distinction for any Canadian politician visiting a capital whose list of priorities is inversely proportional to its attention span.
Baird has attracted U.S. media attention during his three-day visit with repeated demands for a prompt answer on the pipeline — any answer at all. He took it a step further Thursday in a speech near the White House, insisting that even a rejection at this point would be better than further delay.
The Obama administration hardly sounded keen to be rushed.
"This is not a political decision," said Jennifer Psaki, responding to a question about Baird at a State Department briefing Thursday.
"This is a decision that has a legal and a policy process with many components. The stage we're at now, obviously, we're waiting to release the final (State Department) review. When that's released, obviously, there'll be a time period before a decision is made. But this is not a backroom decision made between the United States and the Canadians.
"There is a process that's in place that takes into account many different factors, and we'll let that process see itself through."
She said she couldn't predict when a decision might happen.
Asked why the process was taking so long, Psaki said the government is bound to pore through piles of public input: "We also received more than a million public comments. So there are a number of factors and we're going to see the process work all the way through."
For the second day in a row, Baird said he expected the State Department review to be released soon after the president's state of the union address at the end of the month, with a final decision coming shortly thereafter.
He used a speech just across the street from the White House to convey that sense of urgency, following years of uncertainty and "limbo."
"If there's one message I'm going to be promoting on this trip, it's this: the time for Keystone is now. I'll go further — the time for a decision on Keystone is now, even if it's not the right one," he told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
"We can't continue in this state of limbo."
While awaiting an answer, TransCanada Corp. has already announced that it is changing the way it tackles new projects, after learning a hard lesson that politics can affect construction schedules and costs.
In a year-end interview with The Canadian Press last year, CEO Russ Girling said the company won't start buying materials or securing land for pipelines until it knows for sure it has regulatory approval in hand. TransCanada (TSX:TRP) said it has already sunk $2.5 billion into its controversial $7.6-billion pipeline.
The long-delayed pipeline would move crude from the Alberta oilsands, and from the U.S. Bakken reserves, toward refineries on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Building the final component of the pipeline, in the northern U.S., is projected to take two construction seasons.
Baird said this season shouldn't be wasted — so a decision is necessary soon.
"With the construction season coming up, I don't want a single unemployed worker sitting at home when they could be getting a knock on the door saying, 'We've got a great job for you,'" he told the chamber of commerce.
Baird informed the crowd that Keystone was just one of multiple ways oil would be shipped, with six major Canadian pipeline projects in the works as well as rail shipment — which he noted comes with a greater accident rate.
Environmentalists have challenged the project, prompting the Obama administration to subject it to additional review.
Baird denied suggestions that he's laying the groundwork for a possible rejection of Keystone XL, and instead repeated now-familiar arguments about why Canada believes the project makes economic and environmental sense.
Back home, Baird's opponents, including NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, said they found the mixed messages puzzling.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Washington, he declared, "'I'm not gonna take no for an answer,'" but now Baird is saying, "'I'm ready to take no for an answer, but give me an answer,'" Mulcair said.
"I'll let you figure it out."
Indeed, there were no answers forthcoming Thursday from the White House.
"I think that once the process is moving forward, we'll apprise you of that," said spokesman Jay Carney. "When a decision is made, we'll announce it."
During his trip, Baird has met with numerous lawmakers and with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Baird was coy when asked whether he'd received a briefing on changes to controversial NSA surveillance policies, about to be announced Friday by the president: "We had a good discussion (with Rice) but I'll leave it at that."
His trip wraps up Friday with meetings with his U.S. and Mexican counterparts.
Will he press John Kerry again on the Keystone project? You bet.
"I'll be making a strong case," Baird said, "that this is an important priority for a friend and ally of the United States."
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