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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole delivers his winning speech following the Conservative party of Canada 2020 Leadership Election in Ottawa, on Aug. 24, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In another sign of how fleeting plans in the age of the pandemic can be, Erin O’Toole’s first visit to Alberta as the federal Conservative Leader was scuttled this week after a staff member he had been travelling with tested positive for COVID-19.

Self-isolation and testing for Mr. O’Toole and his family delayed what would have been a victory lap for him in the heartland for his party – the city where Mr. O’Toole announced his “true blue” leadership bid in January, where every MP is a Conservative and where each visit results in an influx of fundraising dollars.

But the cancellation also postponed the inevitable tough questions he would have faced on the environment and pipeline politics.

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Mr. O’Toole was to spend most of Thursday fundraising – with an appearance at a Calgary hotel alongside former party leader Rona Ambrose, WestJet Airlines Ltd. co-founder Clive Beddoe, oilman and financier Jim Kinnear and others. Organizers billed it as a series of “intimate and interactive sessions” for the business community.

“Erin launched his campaign in Calgary and is highly attuned to western alienation and the current lack of Canadian unity caused by the Trudeau Liberals,” said a letter sent by Elan Harper, chair of the organizing committee for the event, a Calgary tax lawyer who’s also former prime minister Stephen Harper’s sister-in-law.

“He understands Albertans' concerns with the Confederation, and has pledged to make them a priority.”

Tickets for the meetings and meals, limited in numbers because of physical-distancing rules, were priced at $300 to $500. The money raised was to go primarily toward retiring Mr. O’Toole’s campaign debt. Despite the current economic funk, organizers posted that the sessions had almost sold out.

Mr. O’Toole had also been scheduled to have an in-person meeting with Premier Jason Kenney and the province’s United Conservative Party caucus. Instead, the discussion happened remotely, with Mr. O’Toole dialling in. There’s no doubt it would have been a date Mr. O’Toole wanted to keep. The Alberta Premier’s endorsement in February gave his leadership campaign an early boost, and supplied critical oxygen to the notion that there was a serious alternative to Peter MacKay, the former cabinet minister who was the presumed front-runner who ended up losing to Mr. O’Toole.

But long before COVID-19 shut down parts of the world, the economic mood in Calgary was grim. When Ms. Harper writes about “lack of Canadian unity caused by the Trudeau Liberals,” she’s speaking about federal energy messaging and policies the Calgary business community believes have further thwacked investment in the oil and gas sector, and what some in the West perceive as indifference to the loss of jobs and future prospects.

Mr. O’Toole has long sold himself as a strong proponent of the sector. But there are early signs of how difficult it will be to balance the expectations in a massive country in which energy and environmental policies often collide, where Conservative support is concentrated on the Prairies, but the most votes are to be found in Central Canada. Mr. O’Toole needs support in riding-rich Quebec, or a collapse of support for the federal Liberals there, to help him have a chance at forming the next government.

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That tension means Mr. O’Toole’s briefest of comments on a west-east heavy oil pipeline in Quebec this week have been scrutinized word by word by his supporters on the Prairies.

On Monday, the federal Conservative Leader met with Quebec Premier François Legault, who has long been clear there’s “no social acceptability” for a new oil pipeline in his province. Mr. O’Toole emerged from the meeting saying that pipelines help get Canadian goods to market, highlighted a more agreeable project for Quebec – a proposed liquefied natural gas project in the Saguenay region – and took up a reporter’s phrasing that Energy East is “not on the table.”

That the Energy East project is “not on the table” is an indisputable fact. The project died three years ago when then TransCanada, now TC Energy, cancelled it amidst low oil prices but also strong opposition in Quebec, and the introduction of a new regulatory hurdle for climate-change-related impacts.

In 2020, there is still no way the multibillion-dollar pipeline makes any commercial sense. But the west-east pipeline is a phantom project that continues to haunt Alberta because of the critical access to the East Coast, and energy markets other than the United States, it might have provided. In Calgary’s downtown business community, it’s widely believed that Canada should be pushing for any and all new oil pipelines to key markets, because any one pipeline’s fate is far from certain.

Mr. Kenney this week made the bold or fallacious prediction – depending on your outlook – that oil demand could be back by 2022, and the country could see a private-sector proponent to “come back to the table” with a project similar to Energy East.

But two years from now, a west-to-east pipeline is still likely to be a non-starter in Quebec, despite the wishes of business interests and workers in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the Atlantic Provinces. Mr. O’Toole hasn’t yet been forced to provide clarity on where he would stand if such a project was ever again a possibility. And how he will balance the pipeline hopes of Mr. Kenney and his base with the climate seriousness required to get elected in the rest of the country, including Quebec and Mr. O’Toole’s own 905 region, remains to be seen.

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