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The Second Coming of Peter Lougheed Add to ...

The man with the grey hair, the bad knees and the intense blue eyes made his way to the front desk of the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary. The young nurse on the overnight shift looked up and asked why he was there. Knee replacement, he said. Name? she asked. Peter Lougheed, he said.

"I guess the shift was changing," Lougheed recalls, "and the gal at the desk, she'd been working all night. I could just see that flash in the eyes: 'Have I got a nut case on my hands, at a quarter to 7 in the morning?' " He laughs with delight. "It was a 10-second thing, but I saw her looking: Where the hell's the orderly?"

After all, why would she know anything about him? It's been more than 20 years since Peter Lougheed stepped down as premier of Alberta. A whole generation has been born and grown up since he disappeared from the headlines. He's no longer the guardian of Alberta's riches against the depredations of the federal government, no longer the voice of the new West going toe to toe with Pierre Trudeau, no longer the man sought by Progressive Conservatives across the country to head the party--"the best leader we never had" is what older Tories still say.

Even so, the nurse might have recognized him, for there is a new Peter Lougheed. At 80, he has returned to the public arena to poke friends and foes, Albertans, Canadians and Americans, with a very sharp stick. In particular, he is poking relentlessly and angrily at the full-speed-ahead modus operandi of the oil industry and the Alberta government.

From his 47th-floor corner office at the law firm Bennett Jones, Lougheed has a commanding view of what matters in Alberta's business world. Up there, it's hard at first to share his anxiety. The man himself is relaxed in shirt sleeves, laughing and smiling, even when he is remarking on the number of people in Calgary who are distinctly unhappy about the things he is saying. With that, he gestures toward the array of gleaming office towers on 4th and 5th Avenues, which house just about every oil company you have ever heard of, and then some.

But then it is as though the man who once ruled it all with such confidence is suddenly reminded that neither he nor anyone else can control a provincial economy overheated by the full-bore development of the oil sands. "Would somebody please outline to me the advantages of our doing it this way?" he asks. "For me, an Albertan? What are they? Can you give me a couple of them? What do I as an Albertan gain by this mad rush up there?"

The first evidence that Lougheed was emerging from political hibernation came at a barbecue he attended at the Calgary home of the United States consul general in the summer of 2005. It was an impressive gathering. The U.S. ambassador, David Wilkins, had flown in from Ottawa, as had then-finance minister Ralph Goodale. The guest of honour was John Snow, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

Snow had arrived in Canada to discuss the oil sands. Alberta was already shipping more than a million barrels of crude oil to the United States every day; Washington, anxious about energy security, wanted more. Lougheed was invited because of his stature in both business and politics--and because of his friendship with the United States. He was, after all, one of the instigators of Canada-U.S. free trade.

Snow and Lougheed got to chatting during the evening. For Snow, it was a shock when the former premier said Canada should consider exporting its oil to China, India or other Asian markets. Why not, Lougheed asked: It's Alberta's oil.

Snow was visibly surprised and upset. He protested that the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement forbid sales of surplus oil to China, that Canada is obliged to sell to the U.S. Lougheed interjected: Having been on the Canadian team that negotiated NAFTA, he knew for a fact that Snow was wrong.

As he recounts the conversation with the agitated Treasury Secretary, Lougheed smiles the smile of a man who does not mind the prospect of a fight, even with a friend and neighbour: "It was quite an unusual dinner. It was polite, but, you know..."

However, after the smile, Lougheed acknowledges there is contention regarding NAFTA's proportionality clause, which specifies that Canada must not reduce the share of its oil production that it ships to the U.S. The clause was inserted in NAFTA because Canada thought it needed a guaranteed market for its oil--what a difference a few years make!

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