As the completion of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project becomes more and more likely, the Liberal government also faces another – albeit lesser-known – conflict in its midst.

The Teck Frontier oil sands mine also concerns the government’s promises to combat climate change whilst appealing to the Western energy sector. The project, now approved by Alberta’s government, requires a green light from the federal cabinet before it can go through. Cabinet, however, is questioning the environmental consequences of allowing such an oil-friendly project to proceed.

Alberta’s Oil Sands

Alberta’s oil sands, which are the world’s third-largest oil reservoir (behind only Venezuela and Saudi Arabia), make up 96 per cent of Canada’s oil reserves. Environmentalists have deemed oil sands as one of the dirtiest forms of energy, with the extraction process producing vast quantities of greenhouse gases, far more than other, conventional methods of oil extraction.

The process consists of separating bitumen from underground sand, followed by diluting it into crude oil in order to facilitate transportation through pipelines.

Overall, these processes require more effort and energy than typical drilling. They also have higher mining costs, bringing up a debate over whether or not it is economically feasible to extract crude oil, particularly in today’s climate of low oil prices.

Canada, however, continues to push for increasing oil exports globally, despite both its vast environmental footprint and the potentially shaky future of the oil industry.

One of the companies continuing to bet on the industry in the midst of declining global demand for oil is Teck. Their proposed oil sands mine in northeastern Alberta would produce up to 260,000 barrels a day. The project has the support of Alberta’s United Conservative government, and is now waiting on the federal government’s approval.

For his part, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney declared in December that if Justin Trudeau’s government were to shut down the project, Alberta’s oil industry will have no way forward”. Kenney and other Alberta oil industry advocates have long protested Trudeau’s promises to fight big oil companies, and call on the government to do more to accommodate the province’s interests.

Liberals’ Concerns

As Trudeau’s cabinet begins to discuss the Teck Frontier decision, they are considering more than just the province’s economic interests. Members of the Liberal caucus have allegedly urged Trudeau not to approve the project, citing their promises to voters of being an environmentally-focused government committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

During the campaign, however, the government’s environmentally-friendly image was often met with skepticism from voters, who pointed to Trudeau’s approval of the Trans Mountain expansion as showing a lack of commitment to emissions reduction. Liberal MPs, especially those in competitive ridings with the NDP, hope to stay true to their promises on environmental issues and validate their constituents’ concerns. 

The party has consistently faced a choice between appealing to Kenney and oil advocates out West or attracting potential NDP or Green voters who would prefer more progressive environmental policies. As they have so far been unable to please the former, this decision may represent a pivot towards the latter.

As federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson confirmed following a meeting with his provincial counterpart in Alberta, climate commitments will certainly be a major factor in the decision of whether or not to approve the mine. Canada is already falling behind on its Paris targets, and adding a new major source of emissions would pose a significant challenge to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. 

But emissions targets are not the only issue at stake with the approval of the Teck Frontier project. The mine’s proposed location is just 17 kilometres from Poplar Point First Nation, and Indigenous advocates have been protesting the project for environmental reasons. Such advocates have been calling on the government to recognize its responsibility to protect stolen lands. 

First Nations communities located near oil sands in Alberta have historically suffered from the environmental costs of mining. Consequently, they associate oil production with health issues among children and increasing difficulty in their traditional practices of living off the land. The Smith’s Landing First Nation, supported by First Nations and Métis leaders in the nearby Northwest Territories, have opposed the mine and requested consultation with the provincial government, pointing to potential contamination of rivers in their territory.

While Teck states that it has signed conditional agreements with fourteen Indigenous communities in the area, many concerns remain unacknowledged. Among them, Chief Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, one of the nations to have agreed to the project, threatened to take legal action if Alberta’s government does not adequately address the destruction of animal habitats that may be caused by the mine. Adam has been meeting with the federal government to address these concerns.

Amid rising pressure from First Nations, international climate agreements, and provincial governments, the federal government faces a stark choice between the crucial issue of climate change and the political task of calming the dissatisfaction of Western provinces. 

Edited by Lewie Haar. 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image via Flickr Creative Commons.