Oil-Sands Envoy Slams Premier, Says Obama to Reject Keystone

  • Merrifield warns of Alberta's waning influence in Washington
  • Notley says decision in pipeline is 'outside of our control'

A longtime Canadian advocate for the Keystone XL pipeline is blaming his former boss, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, for dropping the ball on the project and handing U.S. President Barack Obama a blank check to reject it.

The rift is the latest finger-pointing in Canada over TransCanada Corp.’s project, once called a “no brainer” by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper but delayed for years amid environmental opposition.

Rob Merrifield, Alberta’s outgoing envoy in Washington, said Wednesday he expects Obama to reject Keystone “shortly” and took aim at Notley for not advocating amid opposition from Hillary Clinton and others.

“The premier coming out here and saying ‘we don’t want it, either’ is not helpful,” Merrifield said in a telephone interview. It gives Obama “a blank check to be able to say no and not have a lot of fallout -- and that’s unfortunate for market access, not just for Keystone.”

Notley announced earlier this month that Merrifield’s term would end Sept. 30. The envoy said he hasn’t spoken to Notley since she was elected May 5, despite his role as her foremost representative in Washington.

The premier’s office responded with a curt statement thanking him for his service. “We are looking to replace Mr. Merrifield with a professional diplomat, for reasons Mr. Merrifield has just demonstrated,” spokeswoman Cheryl Oates said.

Critical Time

Alberta will nonetheless be without a representative in Washington at a critical time, with a Keystone decision looming, an expiring softwood lumber pact and amid a dispute over country-of-origin labeling. It will take months or a year for a new envoy to get up to speed, Merrifield said.

“I don’t fault the government one bit for moving me on. It’s the timing that should have been more fluid,” Merrifield said, adding that Notley “didn’t have the professionalism to pick the phone up and even talk to me.”

Merrifield also released a written statement Wednesday saying he expects “a negative ruling” from Obama and that it’s “not a time to send mixed messages about Keystone XL. It is time to ensure our strong presence in Washington.”

The White House declined to comment on Merrifield’s remarks.

Merrifield is a former federal Conservative lawmaker who served as Harper’s liaison to the U.S. congress. He left federal politics last year to serve as Alberta’s envoy, appointed by then-Premier Jim Prentice, also a former federal Conservative. Prentice lost power to Notley and her New Democratic Party this spring.

Notley’s Doubts

Speaking at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York earlier Wednesday, Notley expressed doubts about what influence Alberta -- and, by extension, its envoy -- can have in Washington.

“I don’t know that we have a tremendous effect on the decisions that are made by American politicians,” Notley said. “These are things that are way outside of our control.”

Notley hasn’t backed Keystone XL since being elected in May because the pipeline would export raw crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast and wouldn’t create a new global market, she said. She said an approval from Obama is now “not the most likely outcome.”

The NDP premier supports two other pipeline proposals to Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, however.

Partisan Divide

The divide between Notley and her departing envoy comes in the middle of Canada’s election. The federal New Democrats have slid in polls, while Merrifield’s former Conservative colleagues have rebounded. Harper has attacked NDP Leader Tom Mulcair for his opposition to Keystone, and Merrifield echoed that in his criticism of the Alberta premier.

Keystone XL is seen as a critical link for the energy industry between rising production in Canada’s oil sands and the world’s largest refining market on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Canadian producers are turning to more expensive trains and expansions of existing systems while they endure price discounts for their crude absent the pipeline, which has soared in cost to $8 billion amid the delays.

The pipeline has also become one of the most contentious energy issues for the Obama administration as it pursues international deals to combat climate change. Washington has played host to a massive lobbying fight over Keystone XL between environmentalists who argue it exacerbates emissions growth and backers who say it would create thousands of jobs.

Keystone advocates in the Senate remain four votes short of being able to override a presidential veto and approve the project, Merrifield said in his statement. Harper said this week the pipeline’s eventual approval is "inevitable," a sentiment Merrifield agrees with. He didn’t specify when he expects Obama’s rejection to come.

“That’s a speculative thing but it’s been speculated all summer,” he said, calling Clinton’s decision last week to voice her opposition“a forerunner for what’s happening.”

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