First published on March 14.

Justin and Leanne Mills are in a situation familiar to many Albertans these days.

Justin is still working as an oil well cementer in Lloydminster, but his income is down by 50 per cent and the family is dealing with a painful readjustment of their future.

"For the first time in three years, I actually didn't pay a bill," said Leanne. "We didn't have the money to pay it, so I pay a little on this one and all of that one, and the next month, I'll pay the rest of that one and just try to keep up." 

Justin and Leanne Mills are struggling to pay their bills as work dries up in Alberta's oilpatch2:24

'We don't have a big truck, or a big house, or fancy things and we're still having trouble getting by.' - Justin Mills, oilwell cementer

Their struggles are one side of the conflict gripping Canadians right now as tension grows between the importance of the environment and the economy. A new CBC EKOS Research poll suggests the country is conflicted between the two priorities, especially when discussing the future of the oil and gas industry.

Leanne has been trying to get pregnant for four years and after a string of miscarriages, she began fertility treatments that cost $600 a month. But, with their drop in income, they can no longer afford the treatments.

EKOS poll Canadians worried about economic issues

"I turned 40 last November and when we spoke to our doctor last, I said that we might not be able to do this for a while," Leanne said.

"She said she wouldn't recommended not putting anything off because of my age, but we don't have a choice. I'm afraid when the economy finally gets better, it might be too late."

Justin feels that people outside the province don't really understand what it's like in towns like Lloydminster, which is on the border with Saskatchewan.

"We're trying our best," he said. "All these people are talking about — oh you shouldn't have bought that fancy truck, should haven't bought that big house. We don't have a big truck or a big house or fancy things and we're still having trouble getting by. I wish I was losing a fancy truck."

Energy East pipeline route

About 3,000 kilometres to the southeast, Simone Landry operates a horse farm in Mascouche, Que. She unwittingly became part of the national energy debate a few years ago when she saw some men taking measurements at the perimeter of her land. They told her they were making those measurements for a pipeline.

EKOS poll Canadians protecting environment

"I said — what? And he said: 'You know what happened in Lac Megantic, with the trains, this will eliminate all that.'"

'It has nothing to do with Alberta. It has to do with the choice we made many moons ago, to save our land, save our soil' - Simone Landry, Mascouche, Quebec

The Energy East pipeline is proposed to pass just outside the boundary of her property, just a few feet from where her horses graze. She is fighting it, not because of any animosity toward people like Justin and Leanne Mills, but because her priorities are different.

"It has nothing to do with Alberta. It has to do with the choice we made many moons ago, to save our land, save our soil," Landry said.

There lies the two sides of the energy debate in Canada. One that divides Canada down geographic and political lines and also leads to contradiction. Canadians worry about the economy, we know energy is important, but say we can no longer ignore environmental issues. 

Simone Landry in Mascouche, Quebec

Simone Landry, who has a horse farm in Mascouche, Que., is opposed to the Energy East pipeline. (Denis Couture)

A country divided

In mid-February, CBC News commissioned an online poll on the attitudes of Canadians toward, energy, the economy, and the environment. EKOS surveyed almost 2,100 Canadians between Feb. 16-26. The results showed:

  • 92 per cent of respondents are concerned about the economy.
  • 70 per cent recognize that energy plays a key role in the economy.
  • 84 per cent were concerned about protecting the environment.
  • 56 per cent said they were more worried about the economy than the environment.

"At the highest level, you see this tremendous collision going on between two really powerful forces," said Frank Graves, president of EKOS.

Economic prospects for Canadians are dismal and that's coupled with a sea change commitment to climate change and a low carbon economy, said Graves.

"So here we see an enormous amount of division across those two competing forces. We also see it exceptionally divided on regional and partisan lines as well," he said.

EKOS poll Canadians support for clean energy

Alberta sees no end to oil economy

The economic pain in Alberta touches just about every town and city. Small oil and gas producers face bankruptcy, service companies can't find work, and large corporations count layoffs in the hundreds and thousands.

Activity has slowed substantially for Performance Energy Services, a Calgary-based cementing and well abandonment business. The number of employees has dropped from 63 at the beginning of 2015 to just 24 right now.

'I think it's pretty obvious that the rest of Canada doesn't have our back.' - Scott Darling, Performance Energy Services

"Just today I did another two layoffs," said Scott Darling, company president. "It's been a hard struggle to go through. A lot of uncertainty for the folks and hard for them to go find other jobs."

The company's Red Deer field office is located in an industrial park among hundreds of other oil and gas firms. "For lease" signs line the streets in the front yards of offices and workshops.

Darling doesn't want a bailout for the beleaguered industry, he just wants to see support for new pipelines so Alberta companies can receive a better price for exported oil.

"I think it's pretty obvious that the rest of Canada doesn't have our back," he said. "We are probably getting 40 per cent less for our oil than anywhere else in the world. If the federal government just helped us get our product to market, that's 40 per cent more money in our coffers right here." 

Scott Darling doesn't think the rest of the country cares about Alberta's struggles1:19

For more than a decade, Alberta has produced the most greenhouse gases of any province and emissions are increasing. Since the UN climate change conference in December, Canada's oil and gas industry has been told it needs to start adapting to a decarbonized world. 

Darling defends the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry, arguing it's a highly regulated business that continually reduces its footprint. Critics are often ill-informed, he said.

"World oil usage is going up by the day, by the year," said Darling. "The addiction for North Americans away from oil and gas is not there."

 Albert's European Pastry Shop closed

The downturn in Alberta's oilpatch impacts many other businesses in towns and cities throughout the province. (CBC)

Balancing energy and the environment

The dispute about balancing energy and environmental priorities was a major theme in the poll. 

"There are definitely different views on what it really means to have a low carbon economy and how fast should we be getting there," said Trevor McLeod, who studies natural resources policy for the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank.

The poll suggests that most Canadians believe the way to reconcile the two is through more regulation of the energy sector, with 79 per cent of respondents supporting stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.

There was also support for higher energy costs, if it meant Canada was taking action on climate change and the environment. That is also a shift.

"We'll see if people are ready to actually walk the talk," said Graves. "Canadians have been pretty heroic about the environment as long as it didn't come out of their pocketbook. But I think right now we're seeing real signs of people prepared to make some important changes."

EKOS poll on transporting oil long distances

CBC commissioned EKOS to survey how Canadians feel about the environment, economy and energy — including pipelines. This week we break down the numbers in our in-depth series.

With files from Carolyn Dunn