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Canada’s New Liberal Leaders Support Flexible, Market-Driven Energy Policy

Canada's new Liberal regime -- elected Monday, ending 10 years of Conservative rule -- takes office with its options wide open for responding to developments in natural gas, oil, electricity, pipelines and transmission systems.

The party platform had no separate energy plank, leaving intact the market-driven flexibility that has prevailed as the default setting for national policy created by the 1985 Western Accord agreement between the federal and provincial governments.

The Liberals leaped from 36 to 184 seats in the 338-seat House of Commons -- enlarged from 308 by a 2011-2015 midterm constituency redistribution -- to form a majority government. The Conservatives fell to 99 seats from 159. The New Democratic Party plunged to 44 seats from 95. The Greens and separatist Bloc Quebecois held on to minority roles but failed to increase their influence. The new regime will take shape when Trudeau appoints his cabinet within about two weeks.

Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau -- son of Pierre Trudeau, who held the job for most of the 1968-1984 period -- emphasized Liberal pledges to be fair during a rally held in the industry capital of Calgary on the last afternoon before voting day.

"I will never use Western resources to try and buy Eastern votes," said the younger Trudeau. His vow renounced an ugly, still well-remembered episode of the elder Trudeau's reign, when the 1980 National Energy Program outraged the western gas and oil supplier provinces led by Alberta by imposing severe "made-in-Canada" price control, export regulation and federal taxation on resources that the constitution says belong to them.

On the current most sensitive policy fronts for the gas and oil sector -- the environment and aboriginal affairs -- the Liberal agenda emphasizes co-operation and compromise with industry and provincial jurisdiction over resource development.

While rating climate change as "an immediate and significant threat to our communities and economy," the new regime is committed to building national consensus rather than devising and enforcing eco-doctrine. The Liberal campaign platform echoes a "National Energy Strategy" that Canada's 13 provincial and territorial premiers unanimously adopted at a summer conference.

"The provinces and territories recognize the need to act now, and have already begun to price carbon and take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," the Liberals said.

National policy will attempt to incorporate regionally diverse versions of green good intentions: "We will end the cycle of federal parties -- of all stripes -- setting arbitrary targets without a real federal-provincial-territorial plan in place," they said.

The new regime pledges, "We will instead partner with provincial and territorial leaders to develop real climate change solutions, consistent with our international obligations to protect the planet, all while growing our economy. Together, we will attend the Paris climate conference [of the United Nations], and within 90 days formally meet to establish a pan-Canadian framework for combating climate change."

The Liberal accent is on positive energy development alternatives rather than interfering with current consumer or industry practices, from Canadians' well-known fondness for motor vehicles to continuing growth of oilsands plants in northern Alberta.

The new regime's biggest single environmental commitment to date is creation of a "Low Carbon Economy Trust" with a C$2 billion (US$1.5 billion) endowment of federal cash for green investments to be devised in co-operation with provincial authorities. The Liberals further promise to build "climate resilience" against disasters such as floods, fires and windstorms into a planned C$40 billion (US$31 billion) infrastructure improvement program.

The Liberals also pledge to seek North America-wide climate change policy co-ordination with the United States and Mexico. In Ottawa, Trudeau is committed to creating a special cabinet committee on relations with the United States.

His campaign platform steered clear of often vividly emotional protest against oil and gas pipeline and bitumen production plants, and instead repeatedly promised to craft "evidence-based policy."

The new government's agenda includes overhauling and expanding the National Energy Board (NEB), an item that both responds to green critics and rejects attacks on its credibility and ability to set environmental standards.

"We will modernize the National Energy Board, ensuring that its composition reflects regional views and has sufficient expertise in fields like environmental science, community development, and Indigenous traditional knowledge."

Aboriginal policy, like the promised collaborative climate change agenda, is described as a case of seeking consensus, except that no deadlines are set for reaching agreements akin to the target for a climate change plan.

The new government's election platform vowed to seek partnerships with indigenous communities. But the agenda raised no hint of departing from recent appeal court decisions that upheld project approvals by the NEB and federal and provincial environmental assessment agencies, which use consultation templates that rely on industry aboriginal affairs specialists and reject native demands for veto power.

A mini-scandal during the last week of the election highlighted the new regime's willingness to maintain relationships with the gas, oil and pipeline industry and its regional supporters.

A prominent public affairs consultant, Dan Gagnier, resigned as co-chairman of the Liberal campaign after a leaked memorandum showed that he simultaneously fulfilled a contract for providing advice to TransCanada Corp. on how to ensure a new federal government would understand its Energy East proposal for partial conversion of its natural gas Mainline to oilsands export service. The departure was voluntary, and the new prime minister-elect did not find fault with Gagnier or apologize for the connection.

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