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Echoing the 1950s, Canada finds itself once again in the midst of a national pipeline debate.

Too often, however, there is a tendency to reduce this policy debate to a series of isolated, binary arguments. Will pipelines create jobs or not? Are they safe or unsafe to build? Are they good for the environment or harmful?

This simplistic, reductionist approach to the debate betrays the fundamental importance of pipelines to the Canadian economy. The notion of Canada without a robust pipeline infrastructure is akin to a human body without arteries or a village without roads. It is simply not possible. Pipelines – and more importantly the oil and gas that they transport – are so vital to the functioning of the Canadian and global economy that it is essential that we have the means to distribute these resources throughout our country and to an energy-hungry world.

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Using binary arguments to debate pipelines is like asking whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. While it may be an interesting intellectual exercise, it betrays the central importance of this infrastructure to our way of life. There is no question that we need to build pipelines safely and take the strongest possible measures to mitigate environmental impacts as much as possible. There is no question we need to consult with the affected communities, especially First Nations and other communities along existing and proposed pipeline routes. But that does not mean we should cease to build and improve this essential infrastructure.

There are a number of energy infrastructure projects currently in the regulatory approval stage, including the Keystone XL pipeline, the Northern Gateway pipeline and new east-west pipeline capacity through the reversal of Enbridge's Line 9. There is no debate about the potential of these projects to generate direct and indirect employment. While one can argue whether it is ten thousand, a hundred thousand or a million jobs, anyone examining the data will agree that pipelines are job creators.

My own organization sees this job creation potential very clearly. We also understand – from the construction companies that we work with every day – just how important it is for our economy and standard of living to improve market access for Canadian oil and gas.

A recent CIBC study predicted as many as a million jobs from pipeline construction over the next two decades. Recent reports from Reed Construction Data also show that construction – particularly of our resource economy – is currently driving job creation at a pace far outstripping the Canadian manufacturing sector. In other words, we have an opportunity to 'shift gears' and focus on a sector with the capacity to provide well-paying jobs to current and future generations of Canadian workers.

We must also recognize that the global market for Canada's energy and other natural resources is getting more, not less, competitive. If we expect to compete in this market and continue to build our economy, we must find ways to improve our speed and efficiency in getting our resources to market.

That, in my view, should be the heart of the pipeline debate. The moment we stop asking ourselves what more can we do to improve market access and diversify our customer base is the moment our economy falters.

We need to move away from binary arguments and start to view pipeline development as our next significant nation-building project. We need to expand and improve our pipeline infrastructure so that – like strong arteries – it will continue to nourish and sustain our economy for generations to come.

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Sean Reid is Director, Federal and Ontario, of the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada.

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