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Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Irving Oil president Paul Browning, ACOA Minister Rob Moore and New Brunswick Premier David Alward (left to right) tour the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B. on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave his strongest endorsement yet of the $12-billion west-to-east pipeline project, enthusiastically pitching it as a job creator for all Canadians and one that will expand the country's energy markets.

"This is an extremely exciting project," he said during a visit Thursday to the Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John, which is to be the end of the line for TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline.

Beaming in the background was New Brunswick Premier David Alward, who has been working doggedly for the past year to help land the pipeline, given the green light by TransCanada last week. Mr. Alward's struggling province has the highest unemployment rate in Canada at more than 11 per cent. The Premier says the project will bring about 2,000 construction jobs and the potential for more from spinoffs of the pipeline. It also holds out the promise that the province's sons and daughters who have gone west to find work – including Mr. Alward's 23-year-old son Ben, a pipefitter – can come home.

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Mr. Harper cautioned that the federal government is not a project proponent and all big energy projects are subject to cabinet review. But he was clearly on-side.

"We're not just expanding our markets for energy projects, which we need to do," the Prime Minister said, "but we are also at the same time making sure that Canadians themselves benefit from those projects and from that energy security."

Mr. Alward, in a sit-down interview later with The Globe and Mail, was upbeat as well.

"It was a significant day," the Premier said. It's exciting to hear the Prime Minister speak so strongly of the potential of the pipeline as a "pan-Canadian project," he said, and "understanding what this can mean for our country."

This week, Mr. Alward used the success of the pipeline announcement to launch a television campaign, telling New Brunswickers they've turned a corner and the "future has never looked brighter." The ads have drawn the ire of critics, who say they're partisan and should have been paid for by the Conservative Party.

In the interview, Mr. Alward was particularly bullish about what the pipeline means for employment prospects in the province. An estimated 8,000 New Brunswickers are working in the West, some commuting back and forth every few weeks.

"It is hard on families," said Mr. Alward, who wants his son to come home, too.

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For him, the pipeline is a step toward the government's dream of making the province into an "energy powerhouse." At the event Thursday, Arthur Irving, chair of Irving Oil, discussed this with the Prime Minister, Mr. Alward noted. They talked about that vision, which also includes the $300-million marine terminal the Irving family will build, and what it means to Canada and the world.

The pipeline project came together quickly – in about a year. Mr. Alward credits that to the "confluence" of a number of factors, believing that Albertans "for the first time really started to understand the fact they are getting significantly lower prices for their resource than others" and needed to find more markets than the United States. So they looked eastward and saw Saint John with the largest oil refinery in the country and a big, deep, ice-free harbour.

At the same time, delays with the Keystone pipeline project and the scuffling between Alberta and B.C. over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline gave "impetus" to the west-to-east proposal, Mr. Alward said.

"Once they started to connect the dots on it, that's when momentum really started to pick up," he said.

Last week, Mr. Alward and his wife Rhonda made a quiet visit to Lac-Mégantic, Que. – no press or cameras. He just wanted to talk to municipal leaders, residents and Red Cross workers about the tragedy. It was very emotional, he said, noting the connection with New Brunswick as the train loaded with crude oil was destined for the Saint John refinery.

The tragedy has provoked a debate about whether trains or pipelines are safer to deliver crude.

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"I've always said that I believe the pipeline is as significant to Canada's future as the rail was to the construction of the past," he said. For him, pipelines make sense in terms of safely moving the volumes of crude now being transported.

"That doesn't mean that rail isn't part of the solution as well," Mr. Alward said. "We have to be careful that we don't get drawn into a situation of one versus the other."

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