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Premiers 'optimistic' Canadian energy strategy close, but tensions on display

07/16/2015 12:52 EDT | Updated 07/16/2016 05:59 EDT
Canada's premiers showed a unified front as they emerged from meetings in St. John's Thursday afternoon to announce they were close to an agreement on a Canadian energy strategy.

"We are optimistic that the potential for a good outcome [is there] before we finish our meetings and discussions this week," said Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis, who was flanked by Saskatchewan's Brad Wall and British Columbia's Christy Clark at an afternoon press conference.

- ANALYSIS | Conflict over pipelines already threatening to spill over

Wall had strong words on Wednesday for Ontario and Quebec, whom he feels are blocking pipeline development, including the proposed Energy East pipeline.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, whose NDP government has said it will take a new course on environmental protection, was all smiles and optimistic when she told reporters the premiers were striking "a healthy balance" between "economic prosperity and environmental responsibility."

But moments later, in an interview with CBC News Network, Notley took a jab at Wall, saying "other premiers can do a little bit of showboating," but that she was focused on finding consensus with the other provinces.

On Thursday, in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Wall defended his comments, saying "If standing up for the industry that is so important to our province is showboating in any way, show me the bridge."

Wall offered a vocal defence of the oil and gas sectors as he arrived for the meeting of provincial and territorial leaders. He said he's concerned energy resources are increasingly viewed as a liability in some parts of the country.

"This energy strategy mentions oil, but it's almost in passing," Wall said of an early draft of a document premiers had said they would hammer out before this summer's meeting.

"It's almost like we've become embarrassed that we have this energy asset and we ought not to be, because on the strength of developing that asset, we have funded innumerable social programs. We have created strong economies."

Wall said there's growing frustration in the West, where the energy industry creates jobs and helps fund equalization transfers from the federal government to less-wealthy provinces.

Seeking a balance

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne tried to stay out of the squabble between Notley and Wall, acknowledging that differences between premiers do exist and ought to be reflected in the final agreement.

"Whatever gets said in the lead-up to these decisions, whatever the positions are, we bring those positions to the table … and then we work to find a way to come to a shared position," Wynne said.

"But at the end of the discussion, if we have a Canadian energy strategy that reflects our differences and reflects our shared commitment to working together, that is what is important to me."

Premier Philippe Couillard rejected the suggestion that Quebec or Ontario would veto proposals to build or convert pipelines to carry oil from west to east if western premiers didn't do enough to address environmental concerns.

"It's not the way we approach it," Couillard said, adding that "climate change can not be dissociated from an energy strategy — certainly not in 2015.

"I think we will find the right balance between the two."

Asked if Wall's outspokenness was stalling progress, Davis said that all premiers are free to express their opinions.

Discussion in flux

Notley said she was "cautiously optimistic" the premiers would have an announcement to make on Friday.

"We are an energy province and my job is to make sure that we can grow prosperity in Alberta as well as across the country, and so we're going to continue to do that," she told reporters Wednesday. "But there's no question that our new government does see that there's a close tie between environmental record, a good strong integrity there, in order to establish more access to markets."

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil called Wall a "great partner" and said it's important for all provinces to take a national view on how to best move resources across Canada and to international buyers.

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant said he's optimistic the premiers can agree on a national plan that will set guidelines for new projects, such as the proposed Energy East pipeline while also protecting the environment.

"Energy's an important part of our Canadian economy," he said. "It's an important part of the New Brunswick economy and we need it to be helping us, we need it to be growing if we're going to create jobs and grow the economy from coast to coast to coast."

Davis, who is chairing the summer meeting, said that talks towards an energy strategy were continuing and that a draft document was still in flux, adding that it's more important to get a national energy strategy right than to get it done quickly.

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