Prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Alberta premier Peter Lougheed in 1977 (Photo: Government of Alberta).

Now that we are in the midst of a closely fought federal election campaign, it’s interesting to see the Conservative Party of Canada is open at least to some of the ideas of prime minister Trudeau.

I speak, of course, of prime minister Pierre Trudeau and the National Energy Program implemented by his Liberal government in 1980.

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Andrew Scheer (Photo: Marcos Oliveira, Creative Commons).

Generations of Alberta youngsters learned in the cradle the NEP was the Thing That Almost Ate Alberta.

Now that fossil fuels don’t appear to be quite the Crown jewel they used to seem, however, the thought that some sort of national strategy to get the most out of our petroleum resources might be a good idea after all seems at last to have occurred to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his brain trust.

They have subtly rebranded the concept as the National Energy Corridor — unavoidable, really, given the way Canadian Conservatives, particularly here in Alberta, have relentlessly excoriated the NEP and the Trudeaus for the past four decades. Almost no one will notice.

They have shifted the emphasis too. Instead of proposing to use the market value in our fossil fuel resources to benefit all Canadians, they would like to use the tax value in all Canadians to keep cash flowing into the pockets of fossil fuel corporations as long as possible, and, as an inevitable consequence, greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

In the days of Pierre Trudeau and the NEP, the notion greenhouse gasses might be a problem was understood in scientific circles, but wasn’t really on the radar of public consciousness. What was on Canadians’ minds were the high prices and fuel shortages of the oil crisis of the 1970s.

The goal of the Mr. Trudeau’s NEP was, in the words of Finance Minister Allan MacEachen’s October 1980 budget, to guarantee “security of supply and ultimate independence from the world oil market; opportunity for all Canadians to participate in the energy industry; particularly oil and gas, and to share in the benefits of its expansion; and fairness, with a pricing and revenue-sharing regime which recognizes the needs and rights of all Canadians.”

When that was written, oil prices were at a peak, and most oil and gas corporations were content just to ship the stuff south. It was the thought of sharing too much of our fossil fuel bonanza with other Canadians that first got up Albertans’ noses.

When world prices began heading south in 1981, though, the grownups in premier Peter Lougheed’s Alberta government certainly understood the battering the regional economy was taking was not prime minister Trudeau’s fault.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Nevertheless, the sudden economic downturn was easy to blame on the NEP. This became a convenient stick with which to beat the federal Liberals. Conservatives used it to solidify their support in Western Canada with the confidence some day high prices would return. As indeed they did eventually — for a spell.

To the Conservatives’ credit, if you can call it that, this was done masterfully. Today, the notion the NEP caused an economic disaster is an article of faith in these parts.

Still, the times, they are a-changin’. Now the prime minister of Canada is named Trudeau again and there is much wider public understanding of environmental science. There is worldwide concern about rising global temperatures, and a technological shift toward electrification. In the United States, there is talk of a Green New Deal. And there is Greta Thunberg, the era of late capitalism’s answer to St. Joan of Arc, grabbing all the headlines.

The thought of wide-open continued expansion of Alberta’s oilsands resource is no longer universally supported everywhere in Canada. The belief there will be a market for Alberta’s bitumen until the end of time no longer seems so certain.

Greta Thunberg, the Joan of Arc of the late-capitalist era (Photo: Anders Hellberg, Creative Commons).

Continued development of Alberta’s oilsands and the infrastructure needed to sell more of their output abroad, those pipelines, has become a key issue in the Oct. 21 federal election — and not necessarily on Alberta’s terms.

What’s more, it’s starting to look as if the fossil fuel industry can’t survive in its present robust state without state intervention, and, lo and behold, the Conservatives, who have practically worshiped the Market as almighty god for the past 40 years, suddenly see the wisdom in putting a heavy interventionist hand on the economic tiller.

This used to be known as picking winners and losers and was said by Conservatives not to be government’s job. Now it’s said by the same people to be a reasonable response to a sinister international conspiracy to “landlock” our resource. Here in Alberta, there is a “war room,” an “inquiry,” and oil billionaires screeching “treason” at environmentalists on the Internet.

In the midst of this comes Mr. Scheer’s big idea of a federal economic corridor running from the Pacific to the Atlantic — that is, running in two directions from the Athabasca bitumen deposits to salt water — as the key policy of a rebranded NEP. Under NEP 2.0, Alberta will still share with the rest of the country, but mostly just the pain.

Since Mr. Scheer is fully invested in Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s antisocial-license approach to resource development, this is bound not to go over well in British Columbia and Quebec in particular if the Conservatives manage to beat Justin Trudeau and win the federal election.

Despite Mr. Kenney’s constant bleating that not allowing Alberta to have as many pipelines as it wants whenever it wants them will “Balkanize” the country, punching unpopular pipeline corridors from Fort McMurray to Prince Rupert and Saint John seems an unlikely recipe for national unity.

Still, the idea appears to have support in those Conservative-run provincial capitals where there’s still some life in the “energy superpower” dream of former prime minister Stephen Harper, from which both Mr. Scheer and Mr. Kenney draw inspiration.

So perhaps if the electoral winds blow his way, Mr. Scheer will have a chance to see how it all works out.

If he does, at least he could give the elder Mr. Trudeau some of the credit for the idea. And if by chance it fails to work as promised, maybe the resulting political chaos could be used by some future Conservative leader to attack the government of prime minister Xavier Trudeau …

NOTE: No foreign funds were used in the composition of this blog.

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  1. I am a little confused David, if I understand Andrew Scheer’s proposal it is for a cross Canada corridor for the transportation and potential export of oil, natural gas and electricity as well as telecommunications. If I remember correctly the NEP invoved a made in Canada price for the oil sold in Canada and a federal tax or royalty on oil produced in Alberta. Alberta could not sell its oil for world price. With Andrew Scheer’s energy corridor Quebec for example could export excess hydroelectricity to western Canada. Alberta could transport more oil to the east coast for refining or export or maybe natural gas to a LNG export terminal on the ease coast. I do not agree that this is NEP 2.0. Enjoy your day.

    1. I can’t imagine Scheer winning a single seat in Quebec if he really means a coast to coast energy corridor. Quebec makes too much from the Churchill Falls deal, good to 2041 when the current contract expires.

    2. An energy corridor is just a conservative dog whistle for seizing private farm, ranch, and first nations land and giving it to the energy companies. Sheer’s big idea is just re-cycled Alberta Con theft and will do nothing but create animosity.

  2. If any national Energy Corridor east gets built I have the suspicion it will be used to export bitumen not foster any energy self sufficiency whatever that means. As usual, the pipeline will be paid for by tax dollars and the profits shipped out of the country just like in the days of the beaver pelt. Except Canadians will be stuck with the environmental costs. What else is new in the Canadian mosaic?
    Meanwhile the arrival of Greta Thunberg (aka Miss Chuckie) to our shores was perfect timing. While the real fossils fuel protestors are getting tear gassed she’s proving photo ops for the likes of Trudeau and Obama anxious to market their green credentials.

  3. I am still waiting for my “share” of that international largesse – sigh. Maybe if I defected to some ‘Canadian’ “think-tank” I could avail myself of some big $$’s from ExxonMobile or the remaining Koch brother!!!

  4. National energy corridor, including electrical lines sounds wonderful in a theoretical way, but as always the devil is in the details and it brings up a number of troubling questions. We already have numerous power lines and pipelines crossing the country that have been built over the years. They are in various places, some where it made sense at the time to put them, not just in one specific corridor. Would a national energy corridor mean that pipelines or power lines could in the future only be built in a specific corridor? I am not sure pipeline companies would like that. Remember the uproar from them when people suggested to change the routes of Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain. They pipeline companies complained how expensive it would be to change the routes and it would then make the projects uneconomic. How wide would this corridor be? Would there only be one corridor?

    If this corridor is just based on an existing or planned pipeline route, it does not make any of the issues related to them magically go away. It just makes it politically sound more palatable. I doubt the people impacted by the corridor will just role over and surrender. Also, the corridor’s political appeal in a place like Quebec, which may want to say build new electricity lines may be negated by the fact that on the other hand oil pipelines are really not much liked there. Would a national energy corridor be used to resurrect Energy East? Accordingly, I think most people in Quebec would see the energy corridor idea as a bit of Trojan horse and reject the idea.

    I suppose the only way to try sell this idea is to keep it as vague as possible. Once you start asking questions, it seems to easily unravel. This idea, to use the Conservatives own attack words, is not as advertised. I suppose it might appeal to the base if they don’t think about it too much and perhaps that is how the Conservatives want to run their campaign – motivate their base as much as possible and try to get their opponents supporters to either stay home or be divided. It does not seem Scheer is looking for votes much beyond those that already support the Conservatives.

  5. The irony and hypocrisy abounds with the Conservatives. If the Liberals proposed something like this, they’d get blasted for it. The CPC proposes it, and it’s okay? In any case, oil booms are long gone. Oil prices sank in 2014, thanks to Saudi Arabia and America controlling oil prices.

  6. CPC leader Andrew Scheer’s promise of a second National Energy Program (NEP 2.0), upon first dimpled blush, uses the father’s first NEP 1.0 to simply dwarf his son’s TMX proposal, simply arguing how a Canadian taxpayer-gifted pipeline for Alberta to export diluted bitumen through can possibly be a bad thing, a simply ‘not-good-enough’ thing—indeed, so insulting to Alberta that its government has set up a “war room” to defend itself against a “sinister international conspiracy” to landlock its primary resource, bitumen—as if TMX doesn’t exist (or, if it does, simply insufficiently by dastardly design), as if Canada didn’t buy out Kinder Morgan’s Transmountain (TM) pipeline-twinning expansion project (TMX) to the tune of $4.5 billion, with another double-digit, billion-dollar funding commitment to construct it, a national investment that almost entirely benefits Alberta.

    As usual—and tried and true—the simple narrative simply ignores any others, veracity notwithstanding, so that the focus remains transfixed on the empty shell: now you see pea, now you don’t, similarly to the generic, ‘Hail Mary’ gospel that redacts the realities of dilbit-export policy, rendering and slaking-off a number of exceptions to the Alberta UCP government’s national-crisis narrative like, for example, the fact that if the same export proposal were to terminate at the Port of Prince Rupert—where North America’s second-largest deep harbour opens directly into deep, open ocean as opposed to navigating hundreds of kilometres through the inside marine waters of BC and Washington State—instead of at Burnaby, opposition to it would be considerably, maybe even vitally, less. The UCP’s crisis narrative— replete with warnings of ‘Balkanization’ and threats of separatism—simply ignores the fact that many West Coast opponents to TMX aren’t so much against bitumen development or export per se, but rather to the route proposed. It doesn’t matter to JKKK if a West Coaster supports dilbit export, just not through TMX but Prince Rupert instead: he or she will still be cast as a selfish, hypocritical, undemocratic, ‘rule-of-law’ breaking, pointy-eared dupe of shadowy, international environmental terrorists who deserves to be Balkanized as mercilessly as possible.

    Scheer offers the prospect of using corridored, NEP 2.0 electricity, too. The palpable element of revenge of course harkens back to NEP 1.0, Alberta’s de rigueur lodestone of fed-bashing (personified by any Trudeau who might be Prime Minister at the time). Back in premier Lougheed’s day of real Toryism, the issue wasn’t so much government interference in free markets—he was defending Alberta’s sovereignty which, to the real Tory mind, grants the jurisdiction to skim off a tidy royalty from the conventional oil industry and save it in a Heritage Fund in anticipation of the day when the oil runs out, the profitability of bitumen mining —without massive government subsidies of which real conservatives would have disapproved—was then still a question. The worldwide usurpation of Tory polities by stateless neoliberals (which summarily swapped Adam Smith for Gordon Gecko) ushered in a totally unTory era when sovereignty defers to capitalism (instead of the other way around) and government intervention in the economy—such as Scheer’s NEP 2.0 envisions— is rather intended to bankrupt the state so it’s forced by penury to acquiesce to the demands of “international investors”—the guys whom the state’s weakened sovereignty cannot prevent or incent them from simply moving their money elsewhere, as we’ve heard ad nauseam ever since buying into NAFTA’s bill of goods.

    Premier Lougheed’s opposition to NEP 1.0 was a matter of sovereignty, provincial versus federal, which harkened back to a quarter-century period when Alberta’s (with concurrently confederated Saskatchewan) federal relationship was truly unfair (it didn’t have full sovereignty over natural resources, the defining feature of provincial sovereignty-sharing with the feds; the discrepancy was remedied in the early 30s—before the Canadian Constitution was patriated in 1982– by an Act of the British Parliament). Most Albertans probably didn’t recall this historical vignette during the NEP 1.0 controversy, much less now looking back through the stack of lenses, NEP 1.0, TMX and, now, NEP 2.0. Neither Lougheed nor Scheer need Alberta voters to remember arcane constitutional arguments: they can avail one of the most potent narratological devices, the inheritance from father to son, here performed by PET and JT, to kaleidoscopically moulinex fact, fable, legend and myth into the superficial warpaint of slogan and paean.

    That is, Scheer better hope nobody looks too closely at his NEP 2.0 proposal else it get waylaid by inconvenient truths: there surely is an international conspiracy afoot against combusting any kind of petroleum into the atmosphere but, far from sinister and secretive as the UCP government mischaracterizes it, it is dexterous and righteously overt; but that storyline doesn’t very well work with the UCP’s victim-card arc that shadowy, evil forces are covertly focusing on Alberta’s bitumen alone, unfairly singling it out. Albertans react so predictably to this fabulously maudlin, official propaganda that a naturally begrudging urban myth—of which the UCP government does not disabuse its citizens—that the province is not only being unfairly treated now, but has been all along which, inevitably further developed in the fora of cafes and bars, morphs into the notion that, therefore, Alberta has been unfairly taxed all along, and thence to the attitude that Canada actually owes Alberta large for every perceived sleight. It’s entirely the UCP’s fault, as coordinator of the ant-carbon tax, conservative provincial confederacy, at propagator of fact-free, ‘praise-the-lord-pass-the-ammo’ paeans that the ROC-IQ (-Including Quebec) looks at Alberta this way.

    By signing on to this growing, increasingly singular narrative, Scheer risks getting run over by snowballing codswallop. If his proposed NEP 2.0 corridor must be expropriated from provincial territory, he’s gonna need some cooperation; threading NEP 2.0 through BC and Quebec, both of which have opposed dilbit-piping (although BC is uniquely concerned with dilbit spills from supertankers plying its busy inside marine waters, unlike Quebec which simply opposes a pipeline traversing its jurisdiction), will present, as the ancient Chinese curse says, “very interesting times” considering in neither province have the feds come anywhere close to meeting the constitutional obligation to treat with indigenous nations, a nut his predecessor failed to crack despite bending every rule and gaming every system in trying. Last I checked, the former Reform-a-CRAP-a-Con party have outstanding issues with West Coasters, First Nations, Quebec and New Brunswick (proposed Atlantic terminus of the NEP 2.0, dilbit pipeline), having labeled them, respectively, ‘enviro-terrorists’, ‘veto-drunk’ Aboriginals, ‘treasonous Separatists’ and regionally attitudinal ‘defeatists’. The NEP 2.0 corridor better be piping some honey for Andrew’s sake. Plan Bee.

    But an election campaign is either a great time to rhetorically reconcile these differences or varnish them over with slogans and paeans, the former offering the slight chance of achieving something laudable, sometime, many mandates of compromise and cooperation in the future from now— maybe—the latter guaranteed to antagonize and deprive the very regions and factions of political support requisite for the CPC to win government. Andrew’s dimples will be working overtime to get astride both of these narrative streams, kinda like sore cheeks from laughing at hallucinations during a beer-soaked acid trip, at once profound, inexplicable and hilarious.

    Like “Xavier Trudeau”.

    PS not wanting to risk falling into one of the ubiquitous narrative-traps mined around the bitumen issue, I should like to add that the bitumen industry’s future is uncertain only insofar as its end use is combustion into the atmosphere. If it were up to me, scientists and engineers would be working like the devil right now to develop non-fuel uses for Alberta’s gigantic resource of petrochemicals— which is just a little tidbit that gets lost in subtle manipulations of the UCP/CPC crisis/corridor narrative.

  7. There would have to be a change in the constitution for electricity to be a federally controlled commodity allowing an east-west corridor. Yes the old BNA Act and subsequent amendments. At present, a province can insist that “hydropower” (electricity) from a neighbouring province must be sold to it, and then if it feels like it, be resold to another province or country at whatever price it negotiates with a customer. Why do you think Churchill Falls electricity from Labrador wasn’t sold directly to New York State by NF and Lab, passing through Quebec on its own transmission line? Not allowed by Quebec. Quebec buys it and sells any excess to NY State. Manitoba Hydro sells a little to Ontario, a lot to Saskpower and a lot to the US – it cannot sell direct to Alberta across Saskarchewan territory. that’s why Manitoba Hydro sells a lot to the US, a bit to Ontario and a lot to SaskPower — they’re immediate neighbours. To quote Manitoba Hydro: “Our major utility customers are: Great River Energy; Minnesota Power; Northern States Power; SaskPower; Wisconsin Public Service.” Are they going to break contracts with the US companies to humour Andy Scheer or Farmer Brian?

    All these numbnuts pols think oh! That’s easy, an east-west electricity corridor, until they get into the details of provincial rights.

    BTW, DJC — do you meant Saint John, NB or St John’s NF? There’s a reason the two are spelled differently and have been from well before NF joined Confederation in 1949. To avoid confusion. There is no St John on the East Coast.

    1. So Bill the Green Party has promised to spend $2 billion dollars connecting the Northwest Territories to the southern power grid, does this promise face the same limitations of transporting electric power across provincial lines?

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