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Business Commentary Canada’s prosperity built on network of railways, ports — and pipelines

Gary Leach is president of the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada.

The history of Canada is a story of nation-building across one of the world's most difficult and challenging landscapes.

Our communities are separated by great distances and a sometimes-hostile natural environment. Our geography has endowed us, as a nation, with great natural resource wealth. But it also presents us with vexing challenges.

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The great national transportation and infrastructure projects of the 19th and 20th centuries – our railways, highways, seaways, communications networks and pipelines – linked a string of remote and isolated communities and laid the foundation for one of the world's most prosperous and respected countries. We were a nation that got things done. But today, much of that visionary infrastructure might never be built.

Ports are our lifelines to the world. Canada's national prosperity is built on access to global markets, which maximizes the wealth we obtain from developing our abundant resources. Our transportation networks and seaports have been built to benefit all Canadians – that's what being part of a successful trading nation with access to world markets is all about.

Canada's national infrastructure was built by generations of Canadians who understood this. The tradeoffs and compromises that allowed this infrastructure to be built were critical parts of the spadework of Confederation. Today, we are still a resource nation – but at times, a reluctant one.

Almost one million Canadians work in the resource sector, and almost as many again work in industries supporting it. The sector accounts for half of our exports – oil and gas alone account for more than a fifth.

The Explorers and Producers Association of Canada was established in 1986 to support Canada's junior and mid-sized oil and gas companies, a critical part of our resource economy. We have more than 200 Western Canadian member companies.

We are not giant foreign-owned companies. Our members are energy producers founded, built and operated by Canadians. Many are among the country's most successful entrepreneurs, and they aspire to keep building Canada.

Even in difficult economic times, our member companies invest billions of dollars developing and producing Canada's abundant energy resources. In 2014, our members made capital investments of almost $14-billion in thousands of large and small projects to find and develop new energy reserves, while providing the North American market with a secure, reliable energy source.

These projects provide high-paying jobs for tens of thousands of Canadians, mostly in rural and remote areas of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and support many thousands more across the country, bringing the high standard of living that Canadians enjoy. We operate more than 130,000 oil and gas wells, and produce more than one million barrels of oil-equivalent energy a day.

Like all Canadians, people in the resource sector treasure our natural beauty, national parks, rivers and seacoast. We believe we can create wealth for Canadians without putting these at undue risk, just like the previous generations who built the railways, highways, seaways and pipelines that laid a foundation for our current prosperity.

That's why it's frustrating when a significant element of public opinion turns against oil pipelines, such as Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain Expansion Project from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., or TransCanada's Energy East project. Pipelines are the safest way to move oil, governed by stringent "polluter pay" environmental regulations and built by people dedicated to minimizing risk.

Without pipelines, our industry and the entire Canadian economy suffers. All Canadians pay a price if we fail to gain access to better-priced global markets for our oil. Witness the impact on our currency when the value of our energy exports is hit by lower global oil prices – a factor we cannot control. Our industry is currently struggling directly with a global commodity price slump, but all Canadians have taken a huge international pay cut this year, as a result of a weakened dollar that buys them less in the world.

Every day, Canadians leave millions of dollars in unrealized economic value on the table when we sell our oil at the cheapest prices in the world. That money should be circulating in the Canadian economy, strengthening our communities and supporting government programs we all enjoy and rely on.

Why, then, would we actively choose to sell our oil for less by dragging our heels on building market-access pipelines like Trans Mountain? Unlike global commodity prices, market access is an economic factor we emphatically can control. We get to sell a barrel of oil just once, and all Canadians pay if we don't seek the best price. It's time Canada returns to its roots as a country that can get things done.

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