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Book Reviews Jim Prentice’s Triple Crown, reviewed: A vision for Canada’s energy sector

Published mere months after the former premier’s untimely death in an airplane crash earlier this year, Triple Crown stands as a swan song of sorts for Prentice, whose life’s work and ambition could be found at the nexus of responsible resource-economy development and the rights of Canada’s indigenous populations.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Title
Triple Crown: Winning Canada’s Energy Future
Author
Jim Prentice, with Jean-Sébastien Rioux
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
HarperCollins Canada
Pages
339
Price
$32.99

Jim Prentice, who died in a plane crash last October, was a prominent lawyer, business leader and politician who served as a key cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's Conservative government and as the 16th premier of Alberta.

In all those roles, he was immersed in the often-bitter national debate about the benefits, and costs, of developing Canada's enormous energy resources.

After his (brief) stint as premier, which ended with a crushing defeat at the hands of Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party in May of 2015, Prentice returned to a dormant book project that he'd begun with his friend and former chief of staff, University of Calgary political scientist Jean-Sébastien Rioux.

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The result is Triple Crown: Winning Canada's Energy Future, a 300-plus-page essay that lays out his views on the critical importance of resource development – specifically oil and gas – to Canada's future well-being, and that underscores the urgency of finding answers to real environment challenges and legitimate opposition from indigenous communities.

Triple Crown will be published next week – four months after the Cessna crash near Kelowna, B.C., that killed Prentice; his friend and daughter's father-in-law, Dr. Ken Gellatly; retired Calgary businessman Sheldon Reid, and pilot Jim Kruk. In it, the author portrays himself as a product of Canada's fossil-fuelled prosperity – promoting a bright future of the oil sands sector, rather than musing about "phasing it out," as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did recently.

For Prentice, writing the book was a way to re-engage in public policy discussions after his devastating loss in Alberta, his widow, Karen Prentice, said in an interview. It now stands as the final word from a man whose willingness to listen won him respect from Canadians on all sides of issues that so often create unbridgeable divides.

"I never read the book until after he died," Karen Prentice told me recently. "When I did read it after his death, I realized it was the culmination of his life's work, that the three topics – energy, environment and First Nations – and how they connect are what he worked on his entire career."

Enlivened by anecdotes of his travels among First Nations in British Columbia, the most compelling section of the book deals with reconciliation. Prior to his political career, Jim Prentice worked in indigenous law and land claims. His long-standing call for full partnership for indigenous communities in resource projects – reiterated in Triple Crown – is not widely shared in corporate Calgary. It is also at odds with the views of many indigenous leaders who want to block pipeline projects, not share ownership of them.

The issue is particularly vexing in British Columbia, where the industry's urgent demand for export terminals in order to access new markets has collided with First Nations' insistence – backed by aboriginal title – to determine what development occurs on their traditional land.

"Frankly, the imposition of energy infrastructure on this scale, without their ongoing consent, is a practical, if not legal, impossibility," he writes. "The task at hand is therefore to achieve an alignment of interests – an alignment of Canada's national interest with the financial interests of the project proponents and the legal and community interests of the affected indigenous peoples."

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At its essence, Triple Crown is a plea for crude pipelines to Canada's coasts, arguing that infrastructure is required to ensure a vibrant future for a critical Canadian industry.

In that view, the former Harper cabinet minister is in broad agreement with Prime Minister Trudeau and, for that matter, Alberta Premier Notley. Trudeau's recent comment about "phasing out" oil sands raised hackles in Alberta, but at the same time the Prime Minister argues that growth in production is consistent with the government's climate plan and has approved pipelines that would facilitate its expansion.

Readers will be disappointed if they're looking for political gossip or insider stories of Harper government machinations or Prentice's own stunning political downfall. There are some anecdotes about his life and time in power. However, this isn't a memoir; it's a disquisition.

From the outset, the author makes it clear that he shares none of the doubts about that benefits of a fossil-fuel economy that have provoked passionate opposition to pipelines projects in B.C. and central Canada. For Prentice, working in the resource industry is as Canadian as hockey.

In his opening line, he introduces himself as a "the descendant of a long line of Canadian hockey players and underground miners." As a young man, he spent "seven long summers breaking rocks" in coal mines in southern Alberta.

While Canada's reliance on the resource industries is disparaged in some quarters as being relegated to "hewers of wood and drawers of water," Prentice argues that much of the country's wealth depends on it. That extends far beyond Alberta. It includes Toronto's financial industry that remains heavily exposed to the resource sector; a federal government that relies on the industries for tax revenue and poorer regions whose unemployed young people travel to find work.

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Prentice served as a key cabinet minister in Harper's Conservative government, and – for just eight months – as premier of Alberta. So it's not surprising that he would write a book that promotes the oil and gas industry, and urges Canada to "reclaim the dream of converting Canada's vast energy resources into a secure, prosperous, environmentally responsible future."

However, he leaves a warning for the energy industry, the politicians that support it and the communities that rely on it. In order to win public support, he argues, the industry faces two imperatives: Development must be consistent with environmental protection including international climate-change commitments, and industry must enter into a full partnership with indigenous people to ensure they reap the economic rewards from projects.

Declaring himself as an optimist, Prentice writes that both conditions can be met, though his case is not always convincing.

Coming from a province where a majority still doubt whether humans are mostly responsible for climate change, the former premier hedges his bets, writing he was "ill-equipped to debate the science surrounding climate change." Still, he believes Canada needs to show leadership in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and he proposes a five-part climate-change strategy that looks remarkably like the agreement Trudeau reached in December with eight of 10 provinces and the three territories, including Alberta's NDP government.

That strategy would include national carbon pricing – a policy that is anathema to many conservatives, including Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Prentice's former Conservatives colleagues who for years have adamantly opposed what they deride as a "job-killing tax on everything."

But Prentice qualifies his support for climate-change policies, saying they must be applied in a manner that does not erode Canada's competitiveness with key trading partners such as the United States, where President Donald Trump is now backtracking on the country's commitments. He also opposes Notley's imposition of an emission cap on the oil sands sector, saying such a limit is not "prudent in the absence of a commitment from our continental partners to do the same."

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There is plenty of room to debate the positions that Prentice takes in Triple Crown. And there are some glaring omissions. For example, he doesn't mention that, prior to becoming premier, he worked for Enbridge Inc. in trying to win First Nations' support for its ill-fated Northern Gateway pipeline.

More fundamentally, Prentice counts on continued global growth in demand for crude that would underpin growth in the high-cost oil sands industry. He cites International Energy Agency forecasts to support that rosy view, but the Paris-based agency has issued another scenario, which paints a picture of declining global demand as the world moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Under that scenario, investments in oil sands and pipelines could be stranded assets.

Still, Triple Crown stands as an important contribution to Canada's challenging debate over resource development, climate change and First Nations' rights – a discussion in which he intended to play a prominent role. Perhaps no one in Canada was better placed to provide sorely-needed leadership in these areas than was Prentice, who was well regarded by corporate executives as well as many indigenous leaders and environmentalists.

His voice will be missed.

Shawn McCarthy covers the global energy beat for The Globe and Mail.

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