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Obama Heads to Ottawa for First Foreign Trip as President


U.S. President Barack Obama begins his first foreign trip since taking office when he heads to Canada on Thursday.

White House officials said economic matters will top the agenda during President Obama's visit to Canada. It should come as no surprise because the U.S. and Canadian economies are deeply intertwined.

Canada is America's largest trading partner - exceeding the U.S. trade relationships with China and the European Union. Canada is also the largest single exporter of oil and natural gas to the United States.

That is why a statement by candidate Barack Obama last year, during the height of his bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, created so much concern north of the border.

NAFTA revisited

He raised the specter of renegotiating NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Agreement - with Canada and Mexico.

"I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt out as leverage to insure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced," he said.

Since then, his comments on NAFTA have become more restrained. In an interview this week with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr. Obama said the United States respects its trade pacts. He said he simply wants to incorporate NAFTA side agreements on labor and the environment into the trade deal.

"What I have also said is that Canada is one of our most important trading partners; we rely on them heavily. There is $1.5 billion worth of trade going back and forth every day between the two countries and it is not in anybody's interest to see that trade diminish," he explained.

That is welcome news to Canadian leaders, who have stressed that their country is a reliable source of energy for the United States in a sometimes turbulent world.

The environmental cost of Canada's crude

But Canada's oil carries a big environmental price. Most of the heavy crude it sells to the United States comes from massive reserves in the western province of Alberta, where oil comes mixed with sand and clay. It is separated in a process that emits vast amounts of greenhouse gases.

President Obama told the Canadian Broadcasting Company that the answer may be new technology.

"I think to the extent that Canada and the United States can collaborate on ways that we can sequester carbon, capture greenhouse gases before they are emitted into the atmosphere, that is going to be good for everybody," he said.

Environmentalists, however, are urging President Obama to push for tough restrictions on the production of tar sands oil.

"Any kind of special exemption or protection that would be given for greenhouse gas regulations, especially for the expanding the tar sands industry, just seem to be totally at odds with the commitments that both of our countries have made to fight global warming," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, who is with the National Resources Defense Council.

Another sensitive issue: Afghanistan

Another sensitive issue on the agenda for the talks in the Canadian capital is Afghanistan.

Canada has about 2,700 soldiers in the southern city of Kandahar whose mission is due to end in 2011.

Inter-American relations specialist Peter DeShazo of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said President Obama is not likely to ask Prime Minister Harper to reconsider.

"I am not sure that is an issue that is on the table. What will be of more concern to both sides is the current situation in Afghanistan and what needs to be done," he said.

This will be President Obama's first face-to-face meeting with a foreign leader since his inauguration. And while he will discuss important matters with Prime Minister Harper, the session is primarily a chance for the two men to get acquainted.

Ideologically, Mr. Harper, who heads the Conservative Party, might have had more in common with Mr. Obama's predecessor, George Bush. But analyst Peter DeShazo said the Canadian leader will likely find plenty of common ground with Barack Obama.

"The issues involved in the U.S.-Canadian relationship transcend politics on either side. And, therefore, progress in working those issues is important to both sides," he added.

Mr. Obama will be in Ottawa for less than seven hours and it will be all business - a series of private meetings and a press conference.

Security is expected to be high, with road closures and restrictions on air traffic. But large crowds are expected near Parliament Hill, where the events will take place. Recent public opinion polls in Canada have shown approval ratings of up to 86 percent for the new president of the United States.

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