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A pro-oil counter-protester stands with climate strikers at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton on Oct. 18, 2019.

Amber Bracken/Reuters

Alberta says it’s been frozen out of talks around the proposed Teck Resources Ltd. Frontier oil sands mine ahead of the federal cabinet’s decision on the project, which is required by the end of February.

Arguments for and against the mine, which, if built, would create thousands of jobs and 4.1 megatonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions annually have ramped up in recent weeks. Proponents are calling the decision a test of Justin Trudeau’s commitment to national unity and Alberta’s economic prosperity, while opponents say it will be a measure of the Prime Minister’s sincerity on climate action.

Ottawa’s approach to the decision and comments from the federal Environment Minister that Alberta needs to take stronger climate action in the context of the Teck decision is adding to the uneasiness in the provincial cabinet. The province argues that if the federal government wants to see changes in Alberta’s policies, those talks should happen before the federal cabinet’s final decision. But the message from Ottawa has been to sit tight and wait.

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“It seems to me quite a bizarre process that the feds are proceeding with," Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, arguing that Ottawa is giving his province “mixed messages” on the decision.

In comments to journalists, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has said Alberta must introduce regulations to enforce the province’s oil sands emissions cap and suggested the province needs a more robust climate-change plan if it hopes to get Teck approved. Provincial officials insist those statements contradict what the provincial cabinet has been told in private meetings with their federal counterparts.

In those meetings, Mr. Nixon said Alberta is asked to be patient until cabinet makes its decision. But given the recent comments from the federal minister, he said that approach doesn’t make sense, adding Ottawa “should pick up the phone” and talk to Alberta in advance.

A senior federal government source, though, said it’s too early to have any talks with Alberta until cabinet decides because the outcome could make the need for those negotiations moot. The source was granted anonymity in order to discuss confidential deliberations.

However, the source said Ottawa has made it clear to the province that no matter what the decision on the new oil sands mine is, it expects more climate action from Alberta. For example, the source said Ottawa has tied the oil sands emissions cap to the new federal environmental review process as well as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Mr. Nixon disputes that and says that, in addition to the substantive disconnects between the two governments, Alberta is also confused about who in Ottawa is leading the file and who it should be dealing with. “We don’t really understand who’s got what mandate," Mr. Nixon said, noting that Mr. Wilkinson and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland both appear to be involved, but neither appears to be taking the lead.

In response to Alberta’s concerns, Mr. Wilkinson said in a statement: “Cabinet will be considering the Teck Frontier project based on its merits and will make a decision later this month.”

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“We will take into account all circumstances and information available to ensure this is the best Canada can offer the world in terms of sustainable and responsible development,” he added.

Among the challenges facing the Liberals is that their 2015 pitch that they could fight climate change without jeopardizing the resource sector is becoming an increasingly hard sell, Peter Donolo, a former director of communications to prime minister Jean Chrétien, said in an interview.

Trying to strike a balance between the two is becoming harder to explain and risks the perception that Ottawa is “hitting the gas and the brake at the same time,” said Mr. Donolo, now vice chairman of public-relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada. And as the debate becomes more polarized, any middle ground that was there is “disappearing very fast."

Stewart Elgie, a law and economics professor at the University of Ottawa, said the likely answer to cabinet’s decision is to get beyond the “false choice” created by the hard lines drawn by proponents and opponents of the mine.

Instead of looking at the decision as a lose-lose for Ottawa, it should be viewed as a win-win, where Ottawa could approve the oil sands mine but on the condition it reach net-zero emissions between 2040 and 2050. And because several companies in the sector, including Teck, have already promised to do that, he said the market is already open to it.

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