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Time to look past Obama, Prentice says

Time to look past Obama, Prentice saysFormer Conservative federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is shown during an interview in Ottawa on Monday, November 19, 2012. It's high time Canada started looking beyond the Obama era if it wants to push economic integration with the United States to a new level, says former Prentice.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

OTTAWA - It's high time Canada started looking beyond the Obama era if it wants to push economic integration with the United States to a new level, says former Conservative cabinet minister Jim Prentice.

That includes pushing for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been stalled by the logjam of U.S. domestic politics — something that's unlikely to change in the next three years, Prentice said Wednesday.

New gas discoveries in both countries have transformed North America's economic landscape, said Prentice, who urged the federal government to set its sights on 2017 when Barack Obama's successor arrives in the White House.

Once that time comes, Canada will have an 18-month window to capture the new American president's attention on bilateral issues.

"We must set our priorities, tailor our agenda and make our preparations with that small window of opportunity in mind. The next one will arrive in 2017," Prentice, now a senior bank executive, said in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada.

The former environment and industry minister left politics more than three years ago, but has at times since then been touted as a possible successor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Prentice appeared to take some amusement in that speculation by breaking from his prepared speech and telling his audience of business people and politicians that he had come to Ottawa to make a special announcement.

Many attendees leaned forward, only to learn from a smiling Prentice that his newest grandchild had been born earlier that morning.

Harper and Obama meet face to face next week in Mexico, at a one-day summit of North America's three leaders.

In a pre-speech interview, Prentice suggested there was little hope of Harper making any progress on Keystone when they meet next week.

"The prime minister has many years of experience now with the president. I think he spoke his mind very clearly on Keystone. I'm sure they'll have an interesting discussion but …" Prentice said, before pivoting to restating his long-held support of the pipeline project.

In his speech, Prentice said Keystone was the latest in a list of irritants in the Canada-U.S. relationship that has in the past included the softwood lumber dispute and the "thickening" of the border since 9-11, which is still slowing trade.

"At the same time, our comfortable and familiar relationship in the realm of energy has been radically transformed by North America's supply revolution."

Canada needs to be ready to negotiate an accord with the Americans on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta's oilsands when the next window of opportunity opens in 2017, he added.

More attention needs to be paid to climate change, Prentice said, because the issue is inextricably linked to growth in the energy sector.

"Focusing on environment policy is not exclusively a question of morality. Increasingly, for us, it is an economic imperative," he said. "Around the world, the wave of concern over climate change crested a few years ago … but those who are paying attention can see that the next wave is building again.

"It will come, and Canada had better be ready for it the next time. If you are in the energy business today, you are in the environment business."

In the intervening three years, Prentice said Canada needs to push forward on pipeline construction, particularly to the British Columbia coast, so it can export the oil and gas in Western Canada to markets in Asia.

With the U.S. expected to be energy self-sufficient by the end of the decade, Prentice said Canada basically has no choice; it has to evolve beyond being reliant on a single customer for its energy products.

"The supply-demand balance for energy on this continent has already shifted such that overseas access is nothing short of an urgent priority for the Canadian economy," he said.

"Without it, we are heading towards a marketplace reality in which there will be no market on the continent for increased production from the Canadian oilsands post-2020."

The creation of a viable liquefied natural gas plant on the B.C. coast is also vital, he said.

"This is a viciously competitive global business. It is an industry where the Americans have emerged as our primary competitor."

Prentice also called for greater engagement by the government with aboriginal groups to remove impediments to pipeline construction.

He called it a "marvellous step forward" that Harper was able to announce a new plan for native education last week with Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo.

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