Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a press conference for Canadian media at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Prime Minister Stephen Harper met Wednesday with leaders from the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline — just hours before he again presses U.S. President Barack Obama to approve the controversial project.
Harper's meeting with TransCanada officials occurred in Mexico City before he was to travel to the neighbouring city of Toluca for the so-called Three Amigos summit with Obama and Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto.
The word "Keystone" was never uttered in the brief photo-op, but Harper spoke briefly of the opportunities for Canadian firms in the Mexico's resources sector, which has recently been opened up to private sector investment.
"We're here to talk about what's happening in Mexico," Harper told those assembled in the 14th-floor boardroom of TransCanada's Mexican headquarters.
"As many of you probably know, there's major reforms taking place particularly in the energy sector and this is creating great opportunity for Canadian companies. And so we're here to discuss some of those opportunities."
No progress is likely on the long-stalled plan to link Alberta's oil sands with the southern United States, because neither leader is expected to deviate from their stated positions on Keystone XL.
Harper will likely push Obama for speedy approval, while the White House maintains the president will reiterate that the approval process still has several more months to run.
Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald played down the significance of the TransCanada meeting, saying the prime minister often meets business leaders when he travels.
"The purpose of these meetings is to hear about their experience doing business in Mexico, their plans and any role that the government might play in helping them to grow their business and create jobs," MacDonald wrote in an email.
"TransCanada is showing real Canadian leadership in an important sector, one that has shown tremendous potential to create jobs and economic growth."
He noted that Harper also participated in a roundtable with Canadian business leaders on Tuesday in Mexico where they discussed opportunities to increase trade and investment.
Perhaps like many fellow Canadians at home and around the world, Harper put everything on hold Wednesday to watch Team Canada's nail-biting battle with Latvia in the Olympic men's hockey semifinals.
"Despite being in Mexico, my colleagues and I were determined to find a way to watch this one," the prime minister tweeted, attaching a photo from the hotel room where the group was gathered around a television.
When the winning Canadian goal was scored, the room erupted in cheers, a government official said. Shortly afterward, Harper's motorcade departed for Toluca and the summit meeting.
Harper, Obama to meet privately
Harper will press Obama on the sidelines of a meeting of the three North American leaders that will focus on deepening economic integration, energy, labour mobility and security.
Harper said Tuesday he planned to raise Keystone with Obama, in private.
He said his message would be similar to what he has been saying in public for years, that the pipeline would be good for the economies of both countries.
"I'll raise the issue in private as I've done every time I've met him over the past couple of years," Harper said.
Obama arrives later Wednesday.
The three leaders will mark the 20th anniversary of North American Free Trade Agreement, a deal Harper has lauded despite the fact it has left Canada in a trade deficit with Mexico.
Harper told business leaders on Tuesday that Canada needs to do more to close that deficit while attracting more investment from its southern neighbour.
He said NAFTA has fostered commercial growth between the two countries, but there are still wrinkles.
"It's a very unbalanced relationship," Harper said.
All three countries want to update NAFTA and the consensus seems to be that they should be relying on the current round of Trans-Pacific Partnership talks to do that.
The TPP is a trade bloc of 12 countries in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.
The Obama administration wants a deal by year's end. But Obama is facing opposition in Congress to his goal of getting "fast track" authority on negotiating trade deals.
The U.S. is also negotiating its own free trade deal with the European Union, talks that started just as Canada signed its own agreement in principle with Europe last fall.