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Politics The oil patch may have lost a big opportunity with the Harper era

The Harper era should have been the oil patch's glory days.

Now that power is being handed over to Justin Trudeau and his Liberals, one wonders if the industry missed out on its most favourable political landscape. All of the major initiatives it has pushed for – increased access to more international markets, new pipelines to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, rights-of-way through First Nations lands, avoidance of more environmental costs – are undone.

The collapse in oil prices, meanwhile, has taken a toll on plans for expansion, from the oil sands to the Arctic, regardless of political will. Mr. Trudeau, who made a point of spending much time in Alberta during the campaign, faces the challenges of winning over a skeptical electorate while balancing his environmental platform with the need to protect jobs in the province's main industry.

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The oil patch can't blame voters. In fact, the energy industry could not have hoped for a more friendly collection of federal and provincial governments over the past nine years. Right-leaning governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan had been more than sympathetic to the sector's key causes, from keeping oil and gas royalties in check and carbon emissions goals modest, to fighting for its pipeline aims.

In British Columbia, energy companies and Alberta's former Progressive Conservative government were unable to make a case for bitumen pipelines to the Pacific Coast. But the industry has enjoyed Premier Christy Clark's enthusiasm for advancing liquefied natural gas proposals, even though no developer has made a decision to proceed yet.

But the Harper Conservatives were a step or two above all of them from the standpoint of seeking global greatness for Canada's energy sector, even if it meant stepping on a few toes along the way.

When the industry wanted streamlined approval processes for pipelines, the government responded with a host of changes to environmental legislation and time limits on hearings. If there was any worry that the National Energy Board could turn an application down, Mr. Harper gave his cabinet new powers to reverse that.

At the start of hearings for Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C., from Alberta, then-natural resources minister Joe Oliver launched into an attack on opponents, calling them foreign-funded radicals bent on holding back the potential of the Canadian economy.

When the industry sought support for TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline, seen as key to boosting Canadian heavy oil prices, Mr. Harper and his charges lobbied Washington aggressively for it, to the point where relations between Ottawa and the Obama White House became downright frosty.

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Of course, the Conservatives weren't always in lockstep with the industry. The government closed the door on income trusts, an investment structure that was wildly popular with the sector and investors alike. Mr. Harper also closed the door on acquisition of control of oil sands properties by state-owned enterprises, a move that some energy executives said hurt the value of their assets.

The tide has turned politically, with the ejection of the Alberta PCs last May in favour of Rachel Notley's NDP, and now the loss of the Harper Conservatives. But will the industry be more successful in advancing its important projects?

It could be argued that the years of full-throated support for the industry by governments has emboldened its critics to the point where they oppose all energy projects. Even a pipeline that would carry Canadian crude to the East Coast through Canada, the Energy East proposal, faces potential push-back.

Some companies, such as Suncor Energy and Cenovus Energy, have sought in recent months to build relationships with Canadians away from the cover of politically allied governments and now have to make new friends in government. Others will be wise to start making nice. After all, major projects were stalled in what should have been the best of times.

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