Justin Trudeau told an Alberta audience this week that his vision for Canada's energy sector doesn't include the words "National," "Energy" or "Program" – a joking reference to the disastrous policy championed by his famous father. But when you look at his latest musings on new pipelines for the province's locked-in oil, you have to wonder if the apple has fallen very far from the tree.
Mr. Trudeau – the front-runner for the federal Liberal Party leadership and the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – made it clear, again, that he opposes the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would deliver Alberta crude to the West Coast for export to energy-hungry Asian markets, citing environmental concerns and insufficient consultation with native peoples. But he insisted that he has no problem with pipelines per se.
Like, for instance, that other proposal to pipe Alberta oil east, to Quebec and New Brunswick, where there are refineries that could use the cheaper oil sands heavy crude to produce fuel for the eastern side of the country, and ship it across the Atlantic. Mr. Trudeau wants to see more details, but he said the idea of a west-to-east pipeline is "extremely important."
Funny that the pipeline to which Mr. Trudeau is more disposed is the one that plays to Eastern Canadian interests. The one that could convert Alberta oil wealth into jobs and economic opportunities in Quebec (Mr. Trudeau's home province and his party's traditional power base) and the Maritimes. The one that offers the tantalizing proposition of reliable and lower-cost fuel to the urban-industrial heartland in Ontario, the most critical political battle ground in the country.
If any of that has a ring of familiarity, let's recall the stated goals behind the National Energy Program (NEP), which Pierre Trudeau introduced as Prime Minister in 1980: "… to provide Canadians with energy security, the opportunity to participate in energy development, and fairness in the manner in which the benefits of the nation's rich resources are shared."
This is not to suggest that a west-to-east oil pipeline is even remotely akin to the NEP, a notoriously heavy-handed, nationalistic and interventionist policy that drove investment out of Alberta's oil fields almost overnight, sending the province into a deep and painful economic slump. (Full disclosure: I'm a born-and-bred Albertan who lived through the NEP. We have long memories.)
In fact, the province and its massive oil industry absolutely need such a pipeline to unlock oil that is languishing at far below going global market prices because of insufficient transportation capacity to deliver it to high-demand markets. When Mr. Trudeau speaks of the need for a "pan-Canadian" energy strategy, he's borrowing a term championed by Alberta's own Premier, Alison Redford.
Nevertheless, the younger Mr. Trudeau's enthusiasm for a west-to-east pipeline is remarkably aligned to the goals espoused by his late father's policy. Yet when it comes to another pipeline that both the Alberta and British Columbia governments see as a key cog in their economic prosperity, but which would deliver oil to Asia without sharing much obvious economic benefit with the rest of the country, he stands in high-principled opposition.
Perhaps I'm reading too much into Mr. Trudeau's words; maybe there is no cynical, Eastern-Canada-centric political motive behind his differing positions on the pipelines. But when the son of the father speaks on this issue, it's hard not to hear echoes.