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FILE PHOTO: Former Conservative federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is shown at the Canadian American Business Council during an interview in Ottawa on Monday, November 19, 2012.Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Market access for Alberta's oil is the "most important economic issue" facing Canada, according to former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice, who called for more pipelines to move energy to new markets.

Speaking to an economic forum on in Calgary on Saturday, Mr. Prentice, who held cabinet postings including industry and environment under the Harper Conservative government before returning to the private sector as executive vice-president and vice chairman of CIBC, said Canada has failed to execute a cohesive energy strategy.

"We need pipeline infrastructure in every possible direction," he told business, academic and political leaders from across Alberta.

The Alberta government – and the energy industry – has been advocating for pipelines that would move West (Northern Gateway), East (a proposal to convert a natural gas line through to New Brunswick) and South (Keystone XL), but none of them have been given the green light.

Mr. Prentice highlighted the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would move raw bitumen from Alberta to ports on the West coast of British Columbia, as "one of the most important challenges that this country has faced in generations."

But it has been mired on controversy with objections filed by environmentalists and first nations. The B.C. government has yet to get on board with the project, which the Alberta government is heavily backing.

Still, Mr. Prentice, who is also the former minister of Indian affairs and northern development, said he remains "optimistic" for access to the West coast, but only with direct consultation and involvement with first nations and called on the federal government to play a role.

He warned that Canadian reliance on the United States as its main customer for energy – and 15 per cent of this country's exports – is harming the provincial and national economy. He also said that under the Obama administration in the U.S., there is a growing disconnect between the countries on the energy file. The U.S. is looking to diversify its energy supplies, not rely solely on Canada.

"We can never again be lulled into believing that their interests and our interests on energy will ever be identical," he said.

The problem, he added, is that Canada needs new customers, particularly in Asia, at a time when it is expanding energy production at a time when the worldwide marketplace is "plagued by infrastructure bottlenecks."

"We are new to the global energy game," he said. "And, frankly, if you look around and think about it, we haven't been playing that game with very much skill, with very much foresight, or with very much cohesiveness."

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