OTTAWA - New shale gas discoveries in Canada, the United States and Mexico will pump new energy into the so-called Three Amigos continental alliance when the three leaders meet later this month, Mexico's top diplomat to Canada said Thursday.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama will be hosted by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto for the latest round of a North American summit process that has been widely criticized as moribund and irrelevant.
The three leaders will spend the better part of the day in Toluca, Mexico, on Feb. 19 discussing a range of economic issues. That will follow a full day of bilateral meetings between Harper and Pena Nieto.
The trilateral summits have amounted to infrequent photo-ops with the last Washington meeting occurring in April 2012, after a three-year lull.
But Mexico is heralding the upcoming meeting as an important opportunity to craft a long-term continental strategy on exploiting newfound energy wealth, particularly in shale gas.
"Two years ago, four years ago, we did not have the phenomenal discoveries that have occurred in shale gas and in the Gulf (of Mexico)," Mexican Ambassador Francisco Suarez said in an interview Thursday.
"This is a huge geopolitical and political change in that North America becomes — even more so than it has already been — a powerhouse with the cheapest, and cleanest energy, which is gas."
Late last year, Mexico's congress reversed seven decades of strict state control in its energy industry by allowing foreign companies to invest in its oil and gas sector.
Suarez has said that Mexico is open for business to foreign investors, including Canada.
The envoy struck an upbeat tone after a recent speech in Ottawa that characterized Canada-Mexico relations since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement as "stagnant."
In an interview last year with The Canadian Press, Suarez said his country was "angry" at Canada for imposing a travel-visa requirement on Mexican citizens in 2009.
Nonetheless, Suarez said he doesn't expect such bilateral irritants to overshadow what he called a key opportunity for the three leaders to present a "strategic vision for North America" that would encompass energy, Western Hemisphere security issues, as well as deepening co-operation on education.
The Harper government's point man on tourism said Thursday that Ottawa is putting a priority on getting rid of the controversial visa on Mexican travellers to Canada.
Maxime Bernier, minister of state for tourism, said he couldn't say for sure whether a solution to the visa impasse could be found before Harper arrives in Mexico.
"I don't want to speak before (Harper), but it's always a priority for us to have more tourists from Mexico," Bernier said.
Harper has said he would like to see the visa requirement lifted, but that the Mexican government must first fix its immigration system to guard against bogus asylum seekers who have been abusing it.
Meanwhile, Suarez said the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations that involve all three countries could serve to boost a new phase of North American economic integration.
"If it helps to upgrade and modernize NAFTA, then it's a good thing."
He said the three leaders are expected to announce an agreement on innovation strategies, including boosting exchanges of university students between all three countries.
The three leaders are also expected to unveil a framework agreement to make more capital available to medium- and small-sized companies, he said.