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Baird begins U.S. trip by meeting KXL allies

WASHINGTON - Canada's foreign minister will begin a three-day U.S. swing by meeting with lawmakers who have been vocal supporters of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project.

During his half-dozen meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, John Baird will appear at separate news conferences with two Democratic senators who are among their party's biggest boosters of the project.

One of his interlocutors has described Keystone as the "Kim Kardashian of energy" — meaning it's gotten far more media attention in the U.S. than it merits as an environmental cause.

That senator, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, will use the meeting to discuss recent accidents involving trains transporting oil in her own state and in Canada, according to her office. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board announced this week that a December derailment in Casselton, N.D., had caused about 1.5 million litres of crude to spill.

She was supportive of the oil pipeline well before the recent train accidents.

"Heitkamp will fight alongside anyone who agrees that it's time to move the Keystone pipeline forward — even if it means upsetting members of her own party," said her campaign website, as she ran for re-election last year. "It's time to put aside political games and partisan squabbles in Washington and do what's right for North Dakotans, and what's right for the country."

The Alberta-to-Texas pipeline has been stuck in regulatory limbo, in the face of stiff opposition from environmentalists, and is now undergoing a new review from the State Department.

The Keystone decision will ultimately fall not to Congress, but to President Barack Obama. He has said he'll only approve the pipeline if it doesn't significantly increase greenhouse gases.

Opponents and proponents of the project have spent months parsing the president's words, arguing over them, and interpreting his every move such as the recent hiring of noted Keystone critic and veteran political operative John Podesta onto his White House staff.

Baird will conclude his trip Friday with a pair of meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, whose department is leading the regulatory review. They will meet in a larger Canada-U.S.-Mexico forum with Mexico's Jose Antonio Meade and again, later, in a one-on-one.

Baird intends to discuss the Middle East with his U.S. counterpart, given that he is headed there next and Kerry just returned. They will also discuss Iran, although Baird's office stressed that he has no intention of weighing into the current debate in the U.S. Congress over whether to threaten new sanctions should a current nuclear deal fall through.

Meanwhile, he will meet with National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Wednesday at the White House, before heading off to Capitol Hill for his series of get-togethers with lawmakers.

He will also meet Wednesday with two prominent figures from the Bush era, foreign-policy expert and former undersecretary of state Paula Dobriansky, and David Wilkins, the ex-ambassador to Canada who is now a business consultant.

On Thursday, Baird will speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and meet with the House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan, the former Republican presidential candidate, and with Robert Menendez, head of the Senate foreign relations committee.

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