Leaders clash over pipelines during 1st election debate

It didn't take long for the Alberta oilsands and Canada's energy exports to pop up during Thursday's election debate, with leaders sparring over the economy and environment.

Party leaders debate Keystone XL, Kinder Morgan pipelines during debate

Canada's environmental record was a heated topic of discussion during Thursday night's debate, as well as the potential effects of pipeline projects. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Pipelines from Alberta's oilsands and Canada's energy exports made for contentious topics during Thursday night's federal leaders' debate.

The leaders of Canada's four main political parties gathered in Toronto for the first leaders' forum, hosted by Maclean's magazine, since the election was called earlier this week.

There just is no credibility at this point.–Green Party Leader Elizabeth May on Canada's environmental record

"The federal government does not build pipelines," Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said, in response to an early question about energy exports and stalled pipeline projects.

He said his government favoured diversifying where Canada sells its energy products. However, he said, it was the government's role to "establish an environmental process" for companies to go through.

He added that Canada was waiting on a decision from the United States, but that the Keystone XL project has "overwhelming public support" within Congress and predicted the next U.S. president, regardless of party, would eventually approve the project.

The project is currently being reviewed by the U.S. State Department, which will evaluate whether it is in that country's best interest to approve construction. In February, President Barak Obama vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have allowed construction to start before the review was finished. 

During Thursday's debate, Harper said he believed the U.S. will eventually support Keystone.

"I'm actually very confident, looking at the field, whoever is the next president will approve that project very soon in their mandate," he said.

Harper accused his opponents of being too quick to denounce proposed pipelines without proper evaluation, calling the projects "critical" to Canada's economy.

However, the leaders of the other parties argued it was the government's own environmental policy that was clogging up the pipeline projects.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Harper's "litany of broken promises" on the environmental made U.S. politicians wary of approving Keystone XL.

"There just is no credibility at this point," she said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau echoed May's remarks, saying that Harper's environmental record has scarred Canada's reputation and turned Alberta's oilsands into a "scapegoat" internationally.

He said the government has lost trust — both of Canadians and the international community — when it comes to protecting the environment.

"There is no public trust anymore. People do not trust this government to actually look out for our long-term interest."

Harper accused both Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair of being inconsistent in their support for specific pipeline projects, claiming they either support or oppose them depending on whom they are speaking to.

Mulcair and May spar over Kinder Morgan

Mulcair accused the Harper government of bulldozing over concerns of environmental and indigenous groups in favour of getting projects approved.

"Mr. Harper's belligerent, butting-heads approach is not working," he said. Instead, he promised his party would work closely with aboriginal groups and other people affected by energy products.

But May raised questions about Mulcair's own record on energy exports.

"Do you support Kinder Morgan?" the Green leader repeatedly asked Mulcair.

Mulcair did not specifically say whether he would approve or reject the project, which would increase pipeline capacity between Alberta and British Columbia. Instead, he argued he would make sure it went through a rigorous review to determine whether it was in Canada's interest.

May countered that the NDP could not call the pipeline process flawed in one breath, and with another say that it should be trusted when it comes to Kinder Morgan. She reiterated that her party would oppose it and other pipeline projects.

The vote in the federal election will be held on Oct. 19.