WASHINGTON – A recent Washington speech in which Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird demanded quick action on the Keystone XL pipeline appears to have prompted considerable anxiety back home in Ottawa.
A panicked search for clarity about what the minister had actually said wound up prompting an email chain that involved no fewer than 17 civil servants.
The cause of concern was a single line in Baird’s speech in which he suggested that even a quick rejection of the project would be better than the ongoing uncertainty and foot-dragging surrounding the long-delayed project.
Virtually every news organization that covered the January speech, Canadian and American alike, zeroed in on that headline-grabbing remark. So, apparently, did some of Keystone XL’s many supporters within government.
Emails obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act illustrate a sense of panic at the highest level of government: the Privy Council Office, the central bureaucracy that serves the prime minister and cabinet.
In a series of emails marked “Urgent,” one official requested documented evidence that Baird had actually said what he was reported to have said.
“I need that quote — need to know when he said it,” said one message from a senior analyst in the PCO’s communications department. “Need it by 8:30 (a.m.) please.”
The 17 people involved in the email chain came from various federal departments both in Ottawa and at the Canadian embassy in Washington. The hunt for Baird’s remarks apparently lasted into the next day, even though his speech was carried live on Canadian network television.
The speech had also been covered by numerous domestic and international media organizations, and a transcript was provided to reporters and also posted on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
“Please forward to me ASAP, as requested yesterday,” said another email from PCO, the morning after the speech.
“Need it as quickly as you can get it.”
The official appeared especially concerned that Baird had said, explicitly, that a “no” on Keystone would be better than silence. Here’s what he actually said:
“With the construction season coming up, I don’t want a single worker sitting at home when they could be getting a knock on the door saying, ‘You got a great job,'” Baird told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 16.
“So if there’s one message I’m going to be promoting on this trip, it’s this: the time for Keystone is now. I’ll go further — the time for a decision on Keystone is now, even if it’s not the right one.”
The email chain from January suggests the civil service deployed considerable effort to assist PCO.
“Multiple people working on your request,” one Foreign Affairs employee replied. “Regrettably this is taking more time than it should.”
One diplomat asked whether they really wanted an audio file, in addition to the transcript, because “people are working very hard on this.”
For reasons not entirely clear in the email chain, the panic eventually abated.
“We’re still interested in seeing it but at this point you can dial down the urgency,” said the PCO official. “Later in the day is fine, no one needs to skip a coffee break over this.”
On the substance of the file, the Canadian government didn’t wind up getting what it wanted. Later in Baird’s trip, he appeared at a podium with his U.S. counterpart John Kerry, and the secretary of state explained that he would take his time to go through the mountain of public comments generated by the Keystone consultation.
Thirteen weeks later, the U.S. government suspended the approval process, not only because of the public feedback but also because a Nebraska court dispute had put the pipeline route in limbo.
Meanwhile, Baird’s any-answer-will-do remark appears to have vanished entirely from the Canadian government’s hymn book.
Asked this week whether it was still the federal position that a quick rejection was preferable to a later approval, a Baird spokesman replied in an email: “Our Government knows that Keystone XL will create jobs and economic growth on both sides of the border while increasing North American energy security.”
“The U.S. State Department has determined, on multiple occasions, it will be environmentally sound, and we are confident the Obama administration will make the right decision.”