This month, eight University of Montana journalism students will journey through western Canada to report on energy and environmental issues, including a proposed oil pipeline expansion project that could drastically affect not only our northern neighbor’s energy economy, but that of the United States as well.
After spending the spring semester researching the issues and organizing the logistics, these intrepid student journalists will spend three weeks producing stories across a variety of media. They will focus on energy policy, First Nations perspectives, wildlife conservation and other topics related to oil sands development and the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which was recently purchased by the Canadian government in order to fast-track its construction—despite growing opposition from the British Columbia government and many First Nations.
“This is an extraordinarily interesting time for a team of journalists to explore Alberta and B.C.,” said UM adjunct journalism instructor Jeff Gailus, an experienced environmental journalist from Alberta who will lead the group to the oil sands and then along the route of the Trans Mountain Pipeline to Vancouver. “There’s a pitched battle going on between the Alberta, British Columbia, and federal governments that will have a significant impact on Canada’s economy, and perhaps even whether, or at least for how long, Canada can continue to provide the U.S. with so much of it’s imported oil.”
Albertans just elected a new conservative government that has declared “war” on anyone who opposes or criticizes Alberta’s oil-based economy, and has threatened to cut off the supply of oil and gas to B.C. if it doesn’t green light the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which is slated to transport oil sands crude to terminals in southwest B.C. and northwest Washington state. This is diametrically opposed by the B.C. government and dozens of First Nations, which have said the pipeline project will never proceed. Meanwhile, the federal government owns the pipeline and is also trying to figure out how to honor its Paris Accord commitments to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions by two percent annually.
“There’s a lot of conflict surrounding this proposed pipeline expansion, and several important factors will determine if, or whether, the project goes forward or not,” said group member Kevin Trevellyan, an environmental journalism graduate student. “That’s part of what makes this trip so appealing.”
The trip is the latest edition of the Montana Journalism Abroad course, which allows students to sharpen on-the-ground reporting skills in foreign locales, where complex, meaningful stories are just waiting to be discovered.
The existing Trans Mountain Pipeline, which begins in Alberta, is one of several pipelines that send 2.2 million barrels of oil to the U.S. each year—good for 40 percent of the country’s imports. If approved, the $6.8-billion expansion would increase the pipeline’s capacity from 300,000 barrels of oil to 890,000 barrels per day.
But the controversial oil sands that feed the pipeline have been criticized as dirty, carbon-intensive, and cost-inefficient, especially in the age of growing concern about the social and economic impacts of climate change. Additional development could further threaten the health of Canadian communities and wildlife surrounding oil sands operations, which is why many First Nations members are fighting the expansion, which would cross their traditional lands.
Other First Nations want to invest in the project as a means to spur economic benefits.
Oil is central to Alberta’s identity. Proponents, including new Premier Jason Kenney, believe expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline is vital to producing additional jobs and economic benefit.
All of which is to say the project presents a unique opportunity for students to follow their reporting instincts across a wide range of relevant subjects.
“The issues surrounding the proposal are almost limitless,” Trevellyan said, “and they present a great opportunity for us to challenge ourselves and grow as journalists.”
Learn more about this year’s international reporting class and their work at northernexposure2019.com. Also follow @northexposure19 on Instagram and Northern Exposure Reporting Project on Twitter to receive day-to-day updates of their progress through Canada.
Though this year’s class needn’t travel far to find their stories, Montana Journalism Abroad has taken students around the world. Former groups have reported on South Korea’s urban centers, investigated the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in India, followed the refugee crisis in Germany, and studied the aftermath of the earthquake and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan.