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Andrew Scheer takes a page out of Pierre Trudeau's playbook on pipeline policy

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Prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Alberta premier Peter Lougheed in 1977. Image: Government of Alberta

Now that we are in the midst of a closely fought federal election campaign, it's interesting to see the Conservative Party of Canada is open at least to some of the ideas of prime minister Trudeau.

I speak, of course, of prime minister Pierre Trudeau and the National Energy Program implemented by his Liberal government in 1980.

Generations of Alberta youngsters learned in the cradle the NEP was the Thing That Almost Ate Alberta.

Now that fossil fuels don't appear to be quite the Crown jewel they used to seem, however, the thought that some sort of national strategy to get the most out of our petroleum resources might be a good idea after all seems at last to have occurred to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his brain trust.

They have subtly rebranded the concept as the National Energy Corridor -- unavoidable, really, given the way Canadian Conservatives, particularly here in Alberta, have relentlessly excoriated the NEP and the Trudeaus for the past four decades. Almost no one will notice.

They have shifted the emphasis too. Instead of proposing to use the market value in our fossil fuel resources to benefit all Canadians, they would like to use the tax value in all Canadians to keep cash flowing into the pockets of fossil fuel corporations as long as possible, and, as an inevitable consequence, greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate.

In the days of Pierre Trudeau and the NEP, the notion greenhouse gasses might be a problem was understood in scientific circles, but wasn't really on the radar of public consciousness. What was on Canadians' minds were the high prices and fuel shortages of the oil crisis of the 1970s.

The goal of the Trudeau's NEP was, in the words of finance minister Allan MacEachen's October 1980 budget, to guarantee "security of supply and ultimate independence from the world oil market; opportunity for all Canadians to participate in the energy industry; particularly oil and gas, and to share in the benefits of its expansion; and fairness, with a pricing and revenue-sharing regime which recognizes the needs and rights of all Canadians."

When that was written, oil prices were at a peak, and most oil and gas corporations were content just to ship the stuff south. It was the thought of sharing too much of our fossil fuel bonanza with other Canadians that first got up Albertans' noses.

When world prices began heading south in 1981, though, the grownups in premier Peter Lougheed's Alberta government certainly understood the battering the regional economy was taking was not prime minister Trudeau's fault.

Nevertheless, the sudden economic downturn was easy to blame on the NEP. This became a convenient stick with which to beat the federal Liberals. Conservatives used it to solidify their support in Western Canada with the confidence some day high prices would return. As indeed they did eventually -- for a spell.

To the Conservatives' credit, if you can call it that, this was done masterfully. Today, the notion the NEP caused an economic disaster is an article of faith in these parts.

Still, the times, they are a-changin'. Now the prime minister of Canada is named Trudeau again and there is much wider public understanding of environmental science. There is worldwide concern about rising global temperatures, and a technological shift toward electrification. In the United States, there is talk of a Green New Deal. And there is Greta Thunberg, the era of late capitalism's answer to St. Joan of Arc, grabbing all the headlines.

The thought of wide-open continued expansion of Alberta's oilsands resource is no longer universally supported everywhere in Canada. The belief there will be a market for Alberta's bitumen until the end of time no longer seems so certain.

Continued development of Alberta's oilsands and the infrastructure needed to sell more of their output abroad, those pipelines, has become a key issue in the October 21 federal election -- and not necessarily on Alberta's terms.

What's more, it's starting to look as if the fossil fuel industry can't survive in its present robust state without state intervention, and, lo and behold, the Conservatives, who have practically worshiped the market as almighty god for the past 40 years, suddenly see the wisdom in putting a heavy interventionist hand on the economic tiller.

This used to be known as picking winners and losers and was said by Conservatives not to be government's job. Now it's said by the same people to be a reasonable response to a sinister international conspiracy to "landlock" our resource. Here in Alberta, there is a "war room," an "inquiry," and oil billionaires screeching "treason" at environmentalists on the Internet.

In the midst of this comes Scheer's big idea of a federal economic corridor running from the Pacific to the Atlantic -- that is, running in two directions from the Athabasca bitumen deposits to salt water -- as the key policy of a rebranded NEP. Under NEP 2.0, Alberta will still share with the rest of the country, but mostly just the pain.

Since Scheer is fully invested in Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's antisocial-license approach to resource development, this is bound not to go over well in British Columbia and Quebec in particular if the Conservatives manage to beat Justin Trudeau and win the federal election.

Despite Kenney's constant bleating that not allowing Alberta to have as many pipelines as it wants whenever it wants them will "Balkanize" the country, punching unpopular pipeline corridors from Fort McMurray to Prince Rupert and Saint John seems an unlikely recipe for national unity.

Still, the idea appears to have support in those Conservative-run provincial capitals where there's still some life in the "energy superpower" dream of former prime minister Stephen Harper, from which both Scheer and Kenney draw inspiration.

So perhaps if the electoral winds blow his way, Scheer will have a chance to see how it all works out.

If he does, at least he could give the elder Trudeau some of the credit for the idea. And if by chance it fails to work as promised, maybe the resulting political chaos could be used by some future Conservative leader to attack the government of prime minister Xavier Trudeau ...

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: Government of Alberta​

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