The business of Canadian diplomacy in Washington hasn't been this slippery for the HarperCons since the Department of Foreign Affairs opened Canada's Office of Religious Freedom in the U.S. capital late last year. That one raised a few eyebrows among political pundits and human rights groups, even in the God-fearing USA.
Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in the Beltway to tackle another hot button issue: pipelines. Specifically, TransCanada Corp's controversial plan to build its Keystone XL pipe through Nebraska so crude from the Alberta tar sands can be shipped south to refineries on the Gulf Coast and, from there, seep into world markets.
For Big Oil, Baird's trip couldn't have been more urgent. The U.S. has seemingly got religion where environmental protection is concerned.
The words "oil" and "national security issue" are less frequently used in the same sentence the days, whereas it used to be a given. The U.S is expected to become energy self-sufficient by 2030, thanks to untapped gas reserves discovered sitting in shale formations across the northern states.
Skepticism about climate change is on the wane, including among global warming-denying Republicans. Three years ago 35 per cent of them listed global warming as a concern. Today some 50 per cent do.
You can thanks the BP oil disaster, Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and the wildfires that have been ravaging the U.S. countryside with increasing frequency, for America's attitude adjustment. The jobs argument is also holding less sway these days, when it's "foreign" oil producers, not Americans, getting rich.
Tar sands crude in particular has acquired a nasty rep stateside. Americans, better than most, understand the devastation that can be caused by "dilbit" or diluted bitumen. They're still trying to clean up the mess from the Enbridge spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010.
There, long-delayed work on a stretch of pipeline was blamed for the spill of one million-plus gallons. The National Transportation Safety Board's probe found that Enbridge workers at the company's pipeline control centre in Edmonton ignored a dozen alarms warning of trouble.
Baird treaded lightly in a post-meeting press conference with newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry on the issue of U.S. approval of Keystone, which was stalled by U.S. president Barack Obama before last fall's election after an estimated 800,000 protestors ringed the White House.
Some 53 U.S. Senators have signed a letter urging the president to reconsider the project.
An alternative route proposed for the pipeline has been given approval by Nebraska Republican governor Dave Heineman. But locals have challenged that in court.
More of the U.S. Administration's intentions will be revealed when the U.S. president delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Washington watchers are expecting climate change to be a focal point, recalling his promise in his inauguration address in January "to respond to the threat of climate change."
Kerry, called climate change a "life threatening issue" during hearings last month to confirm his appointment as Secretary of State. It's his department, not the Environmental Protection Agency, which will be making a recommendation to the president on whether to give the go-ahead for the project.
Washington lobbyists hired to push Keystone seem to think it's unlikely Obama will kill the project. Kerry's green cred is just the thing, the spin goes, to sell the project as sustainable without angering democrats.
Certainly, one should never underestimate the power of Big Oil. Kerry recently divested of $750,000 in Suncor and Cenovus stock, two Calgary-based firms pushing Keystone approval, so as not to give the appearance of a conflict on the pipeline decision.
But TransCanada isn't acting like Keystone's a sure thing. Company CEO Russ Girling appeared on BloombergTV last week to push a new pipeline plan, this one an east-west line through Quebec to New Brunswick, to get tar sands crude to refineries in the Gulf via ocean liner.
Big Oil is showing "almost unprecedented interest" in the TransCanada proposal, according to Alberta premier Alison Redford, who was in Toronto recently to push Enbridge's plans to carry tar sands crude through Ontario.
It's an open question whether Big Oil's enthusiasm for the project is real or the result of a massive urgency to get tar sands crude to world markets. It may be too late for investors to turn back now. Billions have been poured into the tar sands.
Calls by environmentalists to begin the hard work of transitioning Canada's economy away from fossil fuels, are being ignored by a Harper government intent on staking Canada's economic future on the tar sands. If the U.S. won't take our dirty oil, maybe China and India will.