MARKHAM, Ont. — Stephen Harper offered a glimpse Thursday of how he might distance himself from the Obama administration's long-awaited decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline: if it gets rejected, don't blame Ottawa.
Harper said U.S. President Barack Obama has never linked any particular Conservative policy to the decision-making process on the multibillion-dollar project, which would pump bitumen from Western Canada's oilsands to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Obama is widely expected to nix the project, largely over environmental concerns. Some people close to the proposal believe the U.S. decision on its fate, stalled for years, could be imminent.
That high-profile rebuff might even arrive before Canadians go to the polls on Oct. 19.
A rejection in the middle of the campaign, which would likely make headlines on both sides of the border, would be unwelcome news for Harper, who has championed the project as a major boon to Canada's economic fortunes.
On top of that, political opponents have indicated they intend to lay the blame for a failed Keystone XL squarely bid at the feet of the Conservative leader.
"Let me be very clear on this: President Obama and the administration has never linked their Keystone decision to a particular Canadian government policy," Harper said Thursday at a campaign stop in Markham, Ont., when asked whether Obama has ever suggested he move faster on climate change.
"They have not asked for a particular government policy in order to approve that pipeline. That is the fact.
"Mr. Obama has indicated to me he will make that decision based on what he believes are the best interests of the United States."
Harper, who was more animated Thursday and took shots at his rivals at a boisterous Hamilton rally later in the day, made the remarks as his campaign prepared to take a three-day break from public events on the road.
He has long argued the TransCanada project would be a crucial piece of infrastructure that would help bolster the Canadian economy, create jobs and ensure less bitumen would travel across North America by trains, which he noted produce more emissions.
He said Thursday that all those factors "speak in favour" of Keystone.
"Mr. Obama will make his own decisions for his own political reasons, but this project is in the overwhelming interest of Canadians,'' Harper said at the Toronto-area event, where he made a campaign pledge to make it easier for people trained abroad to have their professional credentials recognized in Canada.
He was also asked what a Keystone rejection would mean for Canada-U.S. relations, particularly if it came in the midst of the federal election campaign.
Harper did not directly respond to that part of the query, though he stressed the project's eventual realization is inevitable.
"Regardless of what decision that is, in the long term the next American administration will approve it," he said.
A White House spokesman said Thursday that the review of the project is still underway.
"I'm not aware of any decision that the State Department has forwarded on to the White House," Josh Earnest said.
"I don't have an update on timing at this point."
The dispute over Keystone reaches beyond the pipeline itself. There's even a disagreement about how much it matters, as an energy and an environmental issue.
What is clear is the pipeline would transport almost one-quarter of the oil Canada already exports to the U.S. Less clear is what impact it would have on the Canadian oil sector and greenhouse-gas emissions.
The oil is currently being carried south of the border by train, which is more expensive than the proposed pipeline.
The U.S. State Department has also concluded emissions would be 28 to 42 per cent lower with the pipeline. It is based on the assumption Canada's oilsands will continue growing at the same rate.
However, oilsands and other pipeline projects remain stalled or in limbo because the price of crude is hovering around the low level of US$40 per barrel.
Later Thursday, a lively Harper, who has looked increasingly comfortable in front of crowds on the campaign trail, took the stage at a Hamilton event _ his loudest partisan rally of the week.
He cracked jokes in front of dozens of cheering supporters in the sweltering venue.
Harper also took aim at his political rivals with well-worn lines from his stump speech about how they would wreck the economy and drive the country into debt - but this time they were delivered with added oomph.
He even inserted a new zinger for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who announced earlier in the day he would run "modest" deficits over each of the next three years to jumpstart the economy.
"I guess it turns out the budget doesn't balance itself," said Harper, playing off a ubiquitous Tory attack ad that's based on past remarks from Trudeau.
Then Harper, who rarely gets animated during his public appearances, leaned over and used his index finger and his thumb to mock just how small the deficits would be. The crowd laughed and Harper smiled.
The economy, meanwhile, has emerged this week as a dominant theme for all political parties.
And Harper's campaign remained focused on the issue Thursday at his Markham campaign stop.
His Conservatives promised new funding for a federal loans program that offers financial support to new Canadians while they complete the foreign credential recognition process.
If re-elected, he said a Tory government would provide $40 million for the program over five years, on top of the $35 million already committed for the program in this year's budget.
The money is expected to cover 20,000 new loans.
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