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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to members of caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thursday, January 23, 2020. By the end of February, the federal cabinet is supposed to choose whether to approve the Teck Frontier mine.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The struggles of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals with a no-win decision facing their government have started to come out into the open.

By the end of February, the federal cabinet is supposed to choose whether to approve the Teck Frontier mine, a proposed oil sands project in northern Alberta that would be one of the largest in the province’s history.

Give the green light, and Mr. Trudeau will seemingly make a mockery of his commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Reject it, and Albertans – from Jason Kenney down – will accuse the Prime Minister of crushing the ambitions of a province already alienated from Ottawa as it struggles economically.

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Grappling with this dilemma, the Liberals are now signalling – including in recent public comments by Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson – that they may need to extend the deadline for cabinet approval.

In the process, they are disproving the idea that the Frontier mine’s questionable economics offer their government an easy way out.

Amid increasingly heated rhetoric from both sides as the decision has grown closer, cooler minds (including this newspaper’s editorialists) have suggested that such an escape valve might exist in the form of the Liberals being able to approve the project without much fear of it actually going forward.

There are plenty of factors to back up that argument. Teck’s proposal was predicated on oil selling at higher prices than now seems realistic.

A growing number of major global investors are signalling intent to pull back from fossil fuels owing to climate-change risks. Even with efficiency improvements, it could be increasingly difficult for Alberta’s bitumen to compete with comparatively low carbon-intense oil extraction elsewhere.

There are smaller oil sands proposals already approved, but yet to go forward. Teck’s $20.6-billion project, which is supposed to produce up to 260,000 barrels daily and operate across 24,000 hectares until 2066 (so far in the future that even most oil-sector boosters don’t claim to know what demand will look like), would be anything but a sure bet even if Ottawa rallied behind it.

But if it were that simple – if Ottawa could deliver a ruling easing Alberta’s alienation without any real consequence – Liberals wouldn’t greet mentions of the matter with winces.

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On the contrary, this is a decision that matters greatly in their balancing of environmental and economic interests, even if one starts from the premise that the mine might be doomed anyway.

Not that the government can approach a regulatory decision from the perspective that what it’s regulating won’t actually happen. To some extent, sure, the project’s viability might be better determined by economic forces than by government regulation. But it’s not up to the markets to decide whether the Frontier mine’s operation would be compatible with Canadian climate-change targets – reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 – to which the Liberals committed while campaigning for re-election. Nor can any other government or agency be expected to make that evaluation, including a joint federal-provincial panel that last year recommended the project for approval, which was not mandated to consider emissions targets.

But even if ultimately the project won’t ever come to fruition, regardless of what the government rules, there are still stakes just in the symbolism.

If cabinet gives its approval, it will be taken by the environmental movement as a sign that Mr. Trudeau’s government is hostage to the fossil-fuel industry and its most vocal advocates. He will be cast, again, as a hypocrite on climate matters.

That backlash could hurt the Liberals politically, with progressive voters in Eastern Canada or British Columbia. And it could compromise efforts to take a leadership role internationally, in encouraging other countries to pursue ambitious climate targets, which has been a priority of their government. It’s already difficult for a country that’s one of the world’s biggest exporters of fossil fuels to try to convince others they should do their part; it would get harder after a high-profile decision held up as evidence of prioritizing domestic industry over global good.

As for what will happen if Teck’s proposal isn’t approved, suffice it to say Alberta’s government will not shrug it off as something that wouldn’t have happened anyway. In recent months, Mr. Kenney has been portraying the project as an otherwise guaranteed source of thousands of jobs, and has gone out of his way to hold it up as the latest, biggest test of whether Ottawa is responsive to his province’s needs.

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Electorally, the Liberals may not have much incentive to give Mr. Kenney what he wants. They’re unlikely to compete for Alberta seats in the foreseeable future, and his government is less likely to give Ottawa much credit for approval than to treat it as the least that could be done and move on to the next battle. But the Liberals are certainly wary of the national-unity implications of being seen to thwart the ambitions of an angry province already flirting with nationalism.

That latter concern is strong enough that the best bet is probably on the Liberals finding a way (either in late February or after a delay) to give Teck’s proposal their approval – albeit with as many conditions, especially around carbon intensity of extraction methods, as could possibly be attached to it.

But the debate within Mr. Trudeau’s party is far from over. And the fact that the government may not be the final arbiter of the project’s fate, while a consideration, won’t stop those discussions from becoming more heated in the month ahead and maybe beyond.

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