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Prentice starts his crusade for oil pipelines in Vancouver

There are a couple of ways to look at oil pipelines. One is to consider them an environmental menace that should be fought at every opportunity. And then there is the view their construction represents nation-building that has the potential to transform a country.

It will surprise you little that the second opinion is held by Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, who used a speech to a Vancouver business crowd on Monday to promote his position on energy development and outline the dark economic implications of not seizing the opportunity to get Canadian oil to lucrative overseas markets.

It was the first major address that Mr. Prentice has made outside his province since becoming Alberta Premier in early September. The fact it took place in a province that has demonstrated strong opposition to a couple of high-profile pipeline proposals was likely no accident.

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On Tuesday, he is due to be in Quebec and later in the week Ontario, both provinces that have recently made their own concerns about pipeline expansion known.

Mr. Prentice has a massive selling job ahead of him and he knows it.

This week marks the beginning of a crusade to convince Canadians and the country's political class of the shared benefits inherent in all energy projects.

The foundation of the Premier's pitch is that Confederation represented an economic as well as a political union.

"Economic union is based on the assumption the provinces can and should share the advantages of growth and development among themselves," the Premier told the Vancouver Board of Trade. "It is based on the assumption that we are stronger together than we are separately.

"This has always been vital to our sense of common Canadian nationhood. Despite our sometimes divergent interests, we are all on the same team. And the strength of each part of Canada contributes to the well-being of the whole."

And therein lies Mr. Prentice's approach to get the pipeline debate back on track: Make it about the entire country, not just about the enrichment of a single province. Yes, Alberta stands to benefit to an outsize degree from the export of oil sands crude. But people across the country need to appreciate the tens of billions of dollars in revenue that this same crude represents to the federal treasury. Which, in turn, is distributed to the provinces to build hospitals and schools and the seniors' care homes that are going to be needed more than ever in the years ahead.

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This line of reasoning likely represents Alberta's best bet for building some positive momentum behind the pipeline discussion: Focus on things Canadians have come to expect living in an affluent country. And then hold out the prospect of them forfeiting some of these comforts if pipeline initiatives such as Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan and Energy East don't go through.

Some people outside Alberta will liken it to economic blackmail and suggest the Premier is overplaying his hand. There are also Canadians quite prepared to make financial sacrifices in the name of saving the planet. And that represents the crux of the pipeline debate: the environment versus the economy.

Mr. Prentice did spend part of his speech talking about the need to develop "world-class" standards to safeguard our land and oceans from oil spills. And he spoke of the need to further develop measures to mitigate the rise in greenhouse-gas emissions intrinsic in pipeline development. He also mentioned the comprehensive environmental protection plan his province is working on. Over all, however, there were few of the type of specifics that help allay concerns.

I would say this is the part of his sales talk that needs the most work. Speaking to a business crowd about the economic benefits of pipelines and energy development is easy. Providing the skeptics with detailed concrete actions that Alberta and other Canadian provinces will take to offset the harmful environmental impacts of increased oil sands production is a much more difficult task.

But it is the one aspect of this debate that is the most important if Mr. Prentice hopes to one day build a winning coalition in support of his national energy dream.

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