Jim Prentice has a national unity challenge brewing in central Canada.
Earlier this week in Calgary, the new premier of Alberta hosted the recently elected Liberal premier of New Brunswick, Brian Gallant, for a joint promotion of TransCanada's Energy East pipeline project, which would carry one million barrels of western crude to eastern refineries and export terminals.
Mr. Prentice and Mr. Gallant were channelling their respective predecessors, Alison Redford and David Alward, who were the original provincial champions of Energy East, a $11-billion project that has also won endorsement from Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Mr. Gallant assured his Alberta host that there has been no wavering of support on the part of the New Brunswick government for Energy East, which would have its terminus at the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
But even as Alberta and New Brunswick tout the project, opposition is growing in Quebec and Ontario over Energy East. And TransCanada critics are hoping Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, in particular, will channel another premier who has been prominent in the Canadian energy debate: British Columbia's Christy Clark, whose "five conditions" represent a major challenge for Enbridge Inc. and its plans to build the Northern Gateway pipeline through her province.
On the same day that Mr. Prentice was hosting his Atlantic Canadian counterpart, Quebec Energy Minister Pierre Arcand told The Globe and Mail that TransCanada faces significant hurdles and that it won't get "carte blanche" to build through the province. He suggested the province could look for financial compensation.
The Quebec government is being lobbied heavily by its major natural gas distributor, Gaz Métro, and its prominent chief executive, Sophie Brochu, who insists her customers would be disadvantaged by TransCanada's plan to remove some natural gas capacity from service on the cross-country mainline, and provide it to oil shippers.
Ontario gas distributors have made similar complaints and those companies want their governments to oppose Energy East in its current form, even as environmentalists raise their own challenges.
In a speech in Montreal on Monday, Ms. Brochu complained there is no national strategy for energy infrastructure that would ensure one sector doesn't have to pay a steep price to provide benefits to another sector in the energy business.
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Prentice acknowledged he has worked to do to line up support from premiers in Ontario and Quebec for a west-to-east pipeline project that he said is "critical to the province and the prosperity of our province."
"We are in the process of beginning to organize working visits to Ontario and Quebec over the course of the next month," he said. "I plan to meet with the premiers of those provinces certainly before the end of the year. I have had brief discussions with both premiers and I have every prospect that we'll have very positive working relations both in the case of the premier of Quebec and the premier of Ontario."
He added he will also meet with Ms. Clark and believes they can "do business together."
As for the company's dispute with gas distributors, the Premier said that is a commercial matter, but that he is confident a satisfactory resolution can be found among the parties. (TransCanada says it expects the National Energy Board will have to resolve it.)
Mr. Prentice does start with some higher level of political goodwill with Mr. Couillard and Ontario's Kathleen Wynne than Ms. Redford initially saw from Ms. Clark over Northern Gateway.
For one thing, Ms. Clark was fighting for her political life, facing an election that she was due to lose and a pipeline proposal that was widely opposed. Both Mr. Couillard and Ms. Wynne have recently won majority mandates. For another, First Nations have so far remained fairly muted in their response, while there has been full-throated rejection in B.C. to another project that would bring super-sized crude tankers into coastal waters.
Still, the neophyte Alberta Premier has a job to do. With Ontario and Quebec re-committed to a provincially led national energy strategy, Mr. Prentice will have to demonstrate how crude export pipelines fit into a broader approach that places as much emphasis on the environment as it does on development, and as much on domestic energy customers as it does on accessing export markets.