WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama began a summit with leaders from Mexico and Canada on Monday that aims to boost a fragile recovery and grapple with thorny energy issues against a backdrop of painfully high gas prices.
The session at the White House is a make-good for a planned meeting last November in Hawaii on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific summit. Obama ended up meeting just with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper when Mexican President Felipe Calderon's top deputy was killed in a helicopter crash.
On Monday, all three sat down together in the State Dining Room for a closed meeting and later planned a working lunch, officials said. A post-meeting news conference was scheduled in the Rose Garden.
Sure to be featured prominently in the summit: Mexico's role as a major oil exporter and the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada that Obama has shelved pending further review.
Republicans denounced Obama's move as a blow to job-creation and U.S. energy needs. But he maintains GOP leaders in Congress forced his hand by insisting on a decision before an acceptable pipeline route was found.
The pipeline would link Alberta's oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast, but environmentalists fear both its local impact and a major uptick in greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
Harper has voiced disappointment with Obama's decision. He also visited China in February to explore alternatives. Canada has the world's third-largest oil reserves — more than 170 billion barrels — after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and daily production of 1.5 million barrels from the oil sands is expected to rise to 3.7 million by 2025.
Trade also topped the North American summit agenda, with Obama hoping that booming exports will help drive the U.S. recovery. The White House also listed growth and competitiveness, citizen security and climate change as key issues, along with the agenda for the next summit on the docket, the hemispherewide Summit of the Americas later this month in Cartagena, Colombia.
Obama, Harper and Calderon are well-known to each other from international gatherings — but are headed in different electoral directions.
While Obama faces a tough re-election battle for the next seven months, Calderon is term-limited. The battle to succeed him formally kicked off last week and will culminate with Mexican elections July 1. The main issue is the deadly war his government has waged with drug cartels, which has claimed an estimated 47,000 lives.
By contrast, Harper, who has led Canada since 2006, appears secure in his job, having led his Conservatives from minority status to a majority in Parliament in elections last May. He doesn't have to face voters again for four years.
Another reason Obama might envy Harper: thanks to that majority, the budget Harper's government introduced last week should pass easily, including its budget cuts designed to eliminate Canada's deficit by 2015.