Time for U.S. president to make up his mind on Keystone XL pipeline, says Baird

WASHINGTON – In an attempt to press the Obama administration on its own turf, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird used the first day of a Washington visit to repeatedly call for a prompt decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

He buttressed his case by making public appearances Wednesday with two pro-Keystone Democratic senators, who both expressed frustration with how long the administration has dragged out the decision.

Baird offered a snappy reply when asked if there’s anything pro-Keystone politicians on either side of the border could still say or do to influence a debate that has been going on for years.

“One politician — the president of the United States — can say yes to a great project to create jobs on both sides of the border, help with energy independence and energy security,” Baird replied, drawing a chuckle from the lawmaker next to him, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

“Decision time is upon us.”

He repeated the “decision time” phrase on three separate occasions at two public appearances Wednesday, making increasingly clear the Canadian government’s frustration over the prolonged approval process.

Baird held a half-dozen meetings on Capitol Hill and several other get-togethers throughout the day. His two media appearances — both with pro-Keystone lawmakers from the president’s party — allowed them to air their own feelings.

“I will tell you the frustration that many of us have,” said Heitkamp.

“It has taken us longer to make a decision than it took us to defeat Hitler in the Second World War.”

Last fall in New York, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada would not take “no for an answer” until the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline is approved. More recently, he suggested the U.S. president had “punted” a politically uncomfortable dilemma by adding additional steps to the regulatory process.

When asked how soon he expected a decision, Baird said the ongoing environmental review by the State Department could be completed and released “in the coming weeks,” soon after this month’s state of the union address.

After that, he said, a decision could be announced quickly.

He delivered a similar message during a meeting with Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, touted as the likely next chair of the Senate energy committee. With media invited into the meeting, she sympathetically placed a hand on Baird’s as she shared her regrets about how long the process had taken.

Landrieu, who faces a difficult re-election fight, said the project was popular in her state.

They used that public meeting to inform U.S. reporters that Canada has the same greenhouse-gas standards as the U.S., the same vehicle-emissions standards, and has done more to phase out coal.

Landrieu stressed that the pipeline would be cleaner, and safer, than rail transport.

During his three-day trip, Baird also has meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, Mexico’s Jose Antonio Meade, and several think-tanks. He’s scheduled to speak Thursday to business leaders.

He also met Wednesday with National Security Advisor Susan Rice at a particularly intriguing time.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech later this week on reforms to the NSA, which has been battered by outrage abroad over its espionage programs and by concern at home about civil-liberties violations.

Obama will deliver the speech at the Justice Department, in a signal that he might be planning to add new legal guidelines to the U.S.’s post 9-11 surveillance programs.

Was the foreign affairs minister of Canada, fellow member of the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing nations, given advance notice of Obama’s intended policy changes?

Baird’s office declined to discuss security matters. Later Wednesday, the U.S. government offered only a bit more detail.

An email from the White House said Baird and Rice discussed a variety of topics, including border initiatives as part of the largest bilateral trade relationship in the world.

And there was some talk of intelligence-sharing.

“They also discussed the close security and intelligence cooperation between the United States and Canada,” said the email from Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman at the National Security Council.

“Beyond that, I’m not going to read out the details of our diplomatic discussions.”