Officials have been averaging a trip to Washington every two weeks in 2013, but some insiders warn that they could be wearing out their welcome.
by CHRIS PLECASH | The Hill
Last Updated: Wednesday, 05/01/2013 9:43 am EDT
Federal officials are stepping up efforts to make the case for the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington D.C., but some experts warn that the frequent public visits could be doing more harm than good.
Between federal Cabinet ministers and Western Canadian premiers, Canadian representatives have been averaging a trip to Washington every two weeks in 2013, with a focus on making the case for the Keystone XL pipeline and addressing concerns over Canada’s environmental record.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver (Eglinton-Lawrence, Ont.) is the latest federal minister to make the trip. Mr. Oliver was in the U.S. capital on April 24 and 25 to speak at the Center for Strategic International Studies and meet with senior officials in the Obama Administration, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. State Department under secretary Robert Hormats, as well as the chairs of the House and Senate Energy and Commerce committees.
In a teleconference following his speech last week to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in which he accused former NASA climatologist James Hansen of “exaggerating” the impact of oilsands development on climate change, Mr. Oliver told media that part of the reason for his visit was to dispel “myths” about Canada’s environmental record.
“It’s important to be here because Washington is presenting an important opportunity to have a fact-based discussion about Keystone XL which will enhance national security and environmental cooperation, create jobs, and foster long-term economic prosperity,” he said.
Mr. Oliver’s trip came two weeks after Environment Minister Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) was in Washington, D.C., to attend the Major Economies Forum on Climate and Energy and discuss Canada’s environmental record.
Two days before Mr. Kent’s visit, it was Alberta Premier Alison Redford, along with Environment Minister Diana McQueen and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Cal Dallas making the rounds in Washington.
Ms. Redford, who also attended the National Governors’ Association winter meeting in Washington in February, spoke at the Brookings Institute during her latest visit and more recently contributed an op-ed to Congressional newspaper Roll Call making the case for Keystone XL and highlighting her province’s commitment to sustainability.
“We await the State Department’s decision on the project, and we know approving the Keystone XL pipeline is the choice of reason,” Ms. Redford wrote.
Canadian officials have been going out of their way to get Washington’s ear on Keystone now that the U.S. election is over and the State Department’s Environmental Impact Assessment for the TransCanada project has been released.
While official visits are essential to diplomacy, it’s unclear whether the frequent appearances are helping or hurting the case for Keystone XL.
Retired diplomat Colin Robertson told The Hill Times that it is important for Canadian officials to maintain their presence in Washington and complement the work done by Canada’s diplomatic mission.
“If you’ve got a big issue, you have to play by Washington rules, not Canadian rules,” said Mr. Robertson, a former minister of Canada’s Washington Embassy and former consul general in Los Angeles. “That means being in Washington and being up on the Hill, going to the think tanks, being visible to make your case, and talking to editorial boards.”
Even if Keystone isn’t the primary reason for a ministerial visit to Washington, the project is still likely to be discussed informally, Mr. Robertson said.
“It may not be on the official agenda, but it certainly is our number one ask,” he said. “You’re never sure which intervention you make is actually going to be the one that persuades them.”
David Manning, who was appointed as Alberta’s Washington envoy in February, agreed that it is important for Canadian officials to be “incredibly active” with U.S. officials in making the case for Keystone XL, but also avoid getting caught up in U.S. domestic politics.
Mr. Manning, former president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and a former deputy minister of energy for Alberta, said there’s been a conscious effort to keep Ms. Redford’s Washington meetings “bipartisan.”
“When [Premier Redford] came down, we were very careful that her meetings were bipartisan,” Mr. Manning said in an interview with The Hill Times. “Alberta thinks that a bipartisan approach is critically important. The issue has become somewhat partisan — this is Washington.”
U.S. politics has become intensely partisan in recent years and at points in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election, Keystone XL risked becoming a serious campaign issue. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney went as far as saying that he would approve Keystone XL “on day one” of his administration.
President Obama turned down the initial Keystone XL proposal in January 2012, but TransCanada reapplied with an alternate route soon after. The President did approve TransCanada’s 780-km long Gulf Coast line from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Gulf Coast in March, 2012. Construction began last August and the line is expected to be in service later this year.
If approved, the 1,897-km keystone pipeline would have the capacity to deliver up to 800,000 barrels of western crude daily to Steele City, Nebraska where it would feed into existing pipeline infrastructure bound for the U.S. Gulf Coast.
The federal government made a deliberate effort throughout the U.S. election campaign to avoid making statements on Keystone that would be used as political fodder.
Mr. Oliver said that the government is going out of its way to be “respectful of the U.S. process.”
“They certainly have welcomed our involvement and in a number of cases have encouraged us to continue in that regard. I haven’t had any signals, direct or indirect, nor to my knowledge has anyone else in the government, that the advocacy on our part is unwelcome,” Mr. Oliver said.
However, one Washington-based consultant said on background that the Keystone XL debate has led numerous U.S. state and federal lawmakers to address “ill mannered letters” to President Obama, and that attacks by Keystone advocates in the U.S. have done little to help the project’s chances for approval.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall recently made a point of joining 10 U.S. governors in signing a letter to President Obama urging that Keystone XL be approved “swiftly” — a move that the source described as “not helpful.”
The source said that visits by federal and provincial officials are important, but they needed to be “measured” in their frequency and tone.
“You can only go to the well so many times and one has to be really careful,” the source said. “What’s really valuable is the visits by senior public servants who have come to Washington. They know the details, they know the science and the economics, and they’re speaking to counterparts who ministers aren’t talking to.”
The consultant is optimistic that Keystone XL would likely be approved, and added that in the meantime, Canadian officials need to continue to talk about their environmental efforts because the President “doesn’t want to be the guy making the case for Canadian environmental policy.”
“Every time the Prime Minister has talked to [President Obama] in a bilateral discussion or on the margins of an international meeting, the Prime Minister has been very direct on this and very straight and consistent in talking quietly to the President,” the source said. “The President gets it, but he doesn’t want to be the guy to defend [Keystone].”
One former diplomat was more blunt on the recent public push from Canadian officials.
“[F]amiliarity breeds contempt,” said the ex-foreign service officer. “Visitors from Canada constantly importuning Congress and the Executive Branch can be perceived as somewhat tiresome at best, counterproductive at worst.”
There is greater consensus over Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer’s ability to represent Canada’s interests in Washington.
Mr. Robertson said that the former Manitoba premier “gets it” when it comes to working with the U.S. on shared interests.
“[A]s premier he was constantly going south of the border,” said Mr. Robertson. “That’s paid off in spades because governors he got to know when he was premier are now people like [Homeland Security Secretary] Janet Napolitano, Agriculture Secretary [Tom Vilsack], and Health and Human Services Secretary [Kathleen Sebelius].”
Mr. Manning credited the ambassador for being “a strategic operator.”
“We have an ambassador that understands provincial issues, this is his background,” he said.