OTTAWA – Industry Minister Jim Prentice touted Canada’s “stable” supply of oil and gas to an audience of American politicians and heads of industry Monday as he called for a relaxing of barriers that hinder cross-border trade.

Speaking at the Americas Competitiveness Forum in Atlanta, Ga., Prentice said freer trade is vital to economic prosperity in the Western Hemisphere.

Otherwise, he warned, there’s a risk the Americas will be left out while others prosper.

“We need to make trade logistics and border infrastructure a priority in the short term or lose opportunities to other global competitors who are better organized to facilitate trade,” he said.

Prentice echoed the findings of a Canadian government-appointed panel of experts which released a major report in June calling for, in part, the elimination of all internal barriers to trade.

The industry minister lauded the North American Free Trade Agreement as a model that can be adopted both regionally and across the hemisphere.

His remarks come as the Republican and Democrat hopefuls for the White House send mixed signals on the future of NAFTA.

Barack Obama, the presumptive nominee for the Democrats, said in March he would renegotiate NAFTA if elected U.S. president. He now says he supports free-trade agreements, albeit with stronger worker and environmental protections.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain has vowed to strengthen NAFTA and has called for harmonization of Canada-U.S. energy policies.

Prentice said NAFTA has helped Canada’s energy exports to the United States total close to $100 billion each year.

“On oil alone, Canada has been the largest supplier to the U.S. since 1999 – not Saudi Arabia, not Kuwait, nor any other producer from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries,” he said.

“Canada is a stable supplier of energy to the U.S. – whether it is gas and oil in the west or integrated electricity grids in the east.

“And being close means lower delivery costs than most other power suppliers.”