Secretary of State John F. Kerry speaks with reporters after his meeting Friday with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird to discuss the Keystone XL pipeline project. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Friday that he would stick to a “very open and transparent” permitting process for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, adding, “I hope we will be able to make an announcement in the near term.”

Emerging from a meeting with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, Kerry said, “We have a legitimate process that is underway, and I’m going to honor that.” He said it was “fair and accountable.”

It was Kerry’s first meeting as secretary with a foreign diplomat, a nod to neighborliness but also to the importance of settling the Keystone XL issue.

In an interview, Baird said, “We’d certainly like to see a decision midway through the year.”

“We have always thought we could get a decision as early as” the first quarter of the year, Baird said. He said getting approval from Nebraska of a new route around ecologically sensitive areas there “delayed that a little bit.”

The Keystone XL pipeline permit, a State Department matter because it crosses an international boundary, has become controversial because of environmental concerns about possible leaks and high greenhouse gas emissions linked to production from Canada’s oil sands, which would mostly supply the pipeline.

Supporters of the 1,700-mile pipeline say that the oil sands will be developed anyway and that the project could add to U.S. energy security and replace imports from less stable or friendly nations.

Baird said that he and Kerry talked about making a decision “based on science.”

“I also underlined on the environment, on greenhouse gas emissions, we’ve accepted the same reductions, targets as President Obama has, 17 percent reduction,” Baird said. He noted that Canada is planning to phase out all coal-fired electricity plants.

Obama rejected an earlier Keystone XL proposal last year after Congress had forced a decision before the State Department’s assessment process was completed. Obama invited a new application from Calgary-based TransCanada, postponing the contested decision until after the 2012 elections.

The State Department will soon release a new environmental impact statement, based on Trans­Canada’s revised application. That will trigger a several-week period for public comments and responses.

Since the election, pipeline foes have stepped up efforts to block the proposal. Kerry had raised their hopes by saying in his confirmation hearing that U.S. foreign policy “is defined by leadership on life-threatening issues like climate change.”

Baird said the pipeline was important to both nations.

“Jobs are important for both our people, and frankly energy security is pretty important,” he said. “This oil is going to be extracted. It could go immediately by rail car to the west coast of Canada. . . . We obviously have this great natural resource that we are most keen to share with our closest friend and ally.”