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“Energy” has become a dirty word in Canadian federal politics.

It’s hard to come to any other conclusion after watching this week’s English-language campaign debate among the party leaders. One of the country’s biggest industries, one of its most important economic engines, is struggling and faces a troubled future – and the leaders would rather not talk about it.

The two-hour debate actually dedicated one of its five segments to “the environment and energy” – and yet environmental strategy utterly crowded out any serious discussion of energy policy. Many of the leaders were more eager to talk about how they are ready to abandon the oil and gas industry than how they will help it.

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Even the smallest scraps in the party platforms that hinted at supporting a vibrant oil and gas sector – a willingness to, say, promote infrastructure projects, or refineries, or LNG projects – were treated suspiciously, as evidence of moral weakness in the face of the mounting global climate crisis.

Let’s be clear: climate change is one of the most dire challenges of our time, and it’s encouraging how seriously the country’s leadership is treating it, across much of the political spectrum. Still, the speed with which our political leaders have abandoned the energy sector in the process is both astounding and wildly premature.

We are only one election removed from a government, under Stephen Harper, that had hitched its economic strategy on expanding Canada’s role as “an emerging energy superpower.” Now the major parties are treating the sector like an embarrassing uncle who showed up drunk to Thanksgiving dinner – barely tolerated by some, scolded by others, but mostly ignored in the hopes he’ll just pass out and leave everyone alone.

This for an industry that, even after its slump of the past several years, is still responsible for roughly 20 per cent of Canada’s exports. It produces about 9 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product. It directly employs more people than the entire population of Prince Edward Island. This industry, whether it embarrasses you or not, is still a big deal.

At least the Conservatives, the former champions of the sector, still have some semblance of a plan. Their proposed National Energy Corridor would open up a strip across the country to fast-track major resource infrastructure projects – primarily oil and gas pipelines – for approval and construction. It’s a long shot – Andrew Scheer would have to get the provinces as well as Indigenous groups to go along with it – but at least his party is pursuing an avenue for potential oil and gas expansion.

Not that Mr. Scheer pushed his plan particularly hard in the debate, though. He seemed more eager to tout opportunities for Quebec to use his proposed corridor to export its electricity to other provinces than he did about the future of western Canada’s oil and gas business. The quicker to change the subject, the better.

The campaign platform of the incumbent Liberals has remarkably little to say about one of Canada’s leading industries. Yes, the word “energy” appears 26 times in the document – but in every instance, talking about clean energy, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Even the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline – which the Liberal government bought last year for $4.5-billion, ostensibly to come to the aid of oil producers – garners only a passing mention, and never in relation to its role in the growth of new markets for Canadian oil production.

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The NDP has a plan to fight for auto workers, manufacturers, for farmers and fishers. It plans to expand the aerospace and high-tech sectors, and revive the forest-products industry in a sustainable, climate-friendly way. But what about the jobs of oil and gas workers? No, sorry, you’re not on the list. They’ll place a call to the industry funeral home, while offering you expanded Employment Insurance benefits and retraining in your bereavement.

But in the near term, this is far from a dying industry. Canadian oil production grew almost 9 per cent last year. Oil and gas are still going to be a major part of this country’s economy when the next government’s four-year mandate ends – and, quite probably, when the next government’s mandate ends after that.

It is, however, an industry that needs a viable strategy to evolve as green alternatives and carbon reductions change the nature of its business. The country’s leaders should be developing a plan, in concert with their climate strategies, to address the sector’s challenges, while creating conditions for the industry to face the future from a position of strength.

“Give them their pipeline and hope they’ll go away” doesn’t cut it. “Refuse them their pipeline and wait for them to die” is just irresponsible. You don’t let nearly one-tenth of your economy die of neglect.

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