Robin Williams joked in 2002: "Canada's like a loft apartment over a really great party." And it's true that the embassy's rooftop terrace on Pennsylvania Avenue overlooking the Capitol is great for parties.
Yet, 11 years and billions of gallons of oil later, Canada is no joke. It's making itself seen and heard inside the Beltway, lobbying for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial project that's become a lightning rod in the debate over climate change.
A public-relations campaign the Canadian government first launched in May put advertisements in Metro stations throughout Washington, at Ronald Reagan National Airport, and in national media publications. The government plans to step up the campaign in September for what is expected to be the long-awaited homestretch fight over the project, which would send 35 million gallons of oil along the 1,700 miles from Alberta's oil sands to the Gulf Coast each day.
"We're not going to go around Washington to say, 'Look at what we've done on x, y, and z,' " said Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the United States, in an interview Friday. "We're not a holier-than-thou country, that's not our character." In the roughly 30-minute interview, Doer used that phrase—"holier than thou"—four times.
Canada, which has 33 million people—5 million fewer than California—is doing exactly what Doer, in a persuasive and smooth manner, says it's not doing. The country is sending officials to Washington and plastering ads around the city telling residents about the relationship between the two countries, especially as it pertains to oil and trade.
The fact that any foreign government—and especially mild-mannered Canada—is lobbying so publicly and assertively on one project is unusual. It signifies the importance of not only the pipeline and Canada's oil industry, but also the relationship between the two countries and how much political capital Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is putting into this issue.
"Until recently, Canada seemed to be playing its usual role of being polite, constructive, and sincere," said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. "This new, more-aggressive posture indicates that our neighbors may not smile and say thank you regardless of outcome."
The only other comparably large example of Canada asserting itself aggressively against the U.S. is the softwood-lumber trade dispute that dominated the better part of the last decade. The U.S. claimed Canada was unfairly subsidizing its lumber industry. In May 2002, the Canadian government announced it was contributing $20 million to help the lumber industry "raise awareness" throughout the United States. The Keystone campaign is focused on Washington only, so it'll likely cost less than the trade dispute, but the spending won't be disclosed until the Canadian government releases a report on government advertising, officials say, and it's unclear when that report is coming.
As a country, Canada has an inherent advantage that trade groups, like the outspoken American Petroleum Institute, don't. Canadian government officials are regularly invited to meetings with administration officials and Congress, like the G-8 summit in June where Harper pulled President Obama aside to talk Keystone.
What Canadian government officials say carries more weight than a trade group. April and May of this year saw visits by three key officials: Harper, a free-market conservative who has worked in the oil industry, spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations; Alberta Premier Alison Redford spoke at the Brookings Institution; and Canadian Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Oliver's aggressive support for the pipeline elicited a joke throughout Canada's oil industry: that he is the worst-paid lobbyist in the oil patch (though he still makes a healthy $220,000 a year, government records show).
Of course, it's going to take more than a PR campaign to win Obama over on the pipeline. What Canada does in the home stretch of the Keystone fight matters a lot.
Obama's comments in June on the pipeline—that he would only approve it if it didn't "significantly exacerbate" climate change and didn't pose a "net" increase in greenhouse-gas emissions—simultaneously linked the debate to climate change and sent an implicit message to Canada that it needs to shrink its carbon footprint.
"We want to make sure people understand that we are also part of the same treaty agreement on climate change," Doer said, referring to an agreement in 2009 to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to 17 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. He says Canada is on track to meet that target, but environmentalists disagree. Of the four Canadian government-sponsored advertisements, one focuses on climate (the other three are on energy, security, and trade).
Doer wouldn't say that Canada would do more on climate change in order to get the pipeline approved, but he did note that the government is readying its first-ever federal regulations controlling greenhouse-gas emissions from its oil and natural-gas sector. "They're very close," Doer says of the regulations, which environmentalists complain have been delayed for seven years, including a July 1 deadline the government didn't meet. Other Canadian officials said they plan to announce them by year's end, conveniently around the same time as Obama's expected final decision on the pipeline.
"My hope is that the government heard that message [from Obama] that climate change is relevant, that the emissions story needs to be front-and-center, and is hard at work drafting tough oil and gas regulations," said Clare Demerse, director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian sustainable-energy advocacy organization.
Obama's climate speech last month went a long way toward showing the international community that the United States was planning to step up its commitment, but the climate records of both the U.S. and Canada are not stellar.
"We both have the same miserable policy, which is that we say as much as we can and we do as little as we can on a national basis," said David Massell, an expert in Canadian-U.S. relations at the University of Vermont. "That's profoundly true under Harper in Canada."
Canada already has rules controlling greenhouse-gas emissions from its cars and power plants, including coal (which accounts for less than 12 percent of Canadian electricity). It still ranks 15th out of 17 developed countries for its greenhouse-gas emissions per capita, right in front of 16th-place United States, according to The Conference Board of Canada, a research organization. Total greenhouse-gas emissions grew 17 percent between 1990 and 2010 and are expected to keep growing because of development of the oil sands, the carbon-heavy oil Keystone would transport across the two countries.
Because of the political capital Harper has poured into this issue, Obama denying the project could hurt the relationship between the two countries more than it might have otherwise. But the connection is stronger and deeper than one $7-billion project. One out of every three Canadian jobs is tied to exports to the U.S., Massell said. And the U.S. imported $103.9 billion worth of oil and natural gas from Canada in 2012, almost twice as much as the next closest category of imports, which are vehicles at $57.6 billion, according to census data.
"The relationship is far too multifaceted to hurt it," Massell said of Obama denying Keystone. "But it's more than a drop in the bucket because the Harper government has put far too many eggs in the basket to make it a drop in the bucket at this point."