Alberta's tar sands region produces especially carbon-intensive oil. Production there in recent years has also transformed a remote forest wilderness into a barren industrial landscape. Credit: Brian Mann

Climate warrior? Champion of ‘Big Oil’? Canada’s leader wants to be both.

Trudeau’s balancing act is bringing similarly harsh language from the other side.

“You’re either a liar or you’re confused,” oil worker Merle Terlesky told Trudeau at a town hall meeting in Alberta. “I’m beginning to think it’s both. … You cannot come down to this province and attack the single biggest employer.”

Oil drives Alberta’s economy and culture more than any other part of Canada. There’s a reason their NHL hockey team is called the Oilers. And many people in the province share Terlesky’s skepticism. They believe his carbon tax and other environmental measures will put their industry at a competitive disadvantage.

But growing that industry comes at a huge cost — not just more carbon pollution, but also destroyed forests and massive strip mines.

Flying over the tar sands in a small plane reveals mile after mile of forest scoured away by trucks and bulldozers as big as office buildings.

Sludge pools the size of lakes are filled with contaminated wastewater. There are massive yellow pyramids built entirely out of sulfur squeezed from tar sands oil.

“There are people who have referred to it as looking like a war zone or like Mordor,” says Eriel Deranger, an Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations activist and founder of a group called Indigenous Climate Action.

She says Trudeau’s push for tar sands development has put the prime minister at odds with many aboriginal communities.

“These places that I once knew as a child were literally bulldozed over. It’s a very visceral sense of death,” Deranger says.

By embracing big oil, Trudeau hopes to win enough political backing in Canada’s western provinces to push through his wider environment agenda. And energy experts and economists I talked to say those policies likely will reduce Canada’s domestic carbon emissions significantly.

But there’s another big wrinkle. Under the Paris accords, carbon pollution is measured in the country where fossil fuels are burned, not where they’re produced.

So, it’s possible Canada will soon be bragging about significant cuts to carbon pollution at home while contributing to a spike in pollution elsewhere.

In fact, Trudeau is so committed to boosting Canada’s oil exports that he appointed a trade lawyer, not a scientist or energy expert, to serve as Canada’s minister of the environment and climate change.

“I’m as much an economic minister as I am an environment minister,” says Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. On a recent visit to Washington, she boasted about Trudeau’s success at that oil industry conference.

“Who would have thought, the prime minister got three standing ovations from oil and gas companies,” McKenna said. “He made the case the environment and the economy go together.”

But even some of Trudeau’s strongest supporters say the line Trudeau is trying to walk — climate change warrior and “Big Oil” champion — just doesn’t work. Elizabeth May, who leads Canada’s Green Party, describes the prime minister as a friend, and she says she’s convinced Trudeau understands that tar sands oil is a threat to the planet.

“It’s not a political test” for Trudeau, May says. “It’s a test of character. What’s more important? Your kids’ future? Or a standing ovation in Houston?”

So, there are a lot of unanswered questions about Justin Trudeau’s leadership in the fight against climate change. 

What’s certain is that the pipelines and refineries Trudeau is pushing for will tie Canada’s economy — and the world’s — to tar sands oil for decades to come, even as the impacts of climate change that he warns about continue to mount.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission