OTTAWA—Like most everyone with a stake in the quagmire of Canadian climate politics, Colleen Thorpe does not know if the Liberal government will approve the Teck Frontier oilsands project.
But she sure is worried it will.
The executive director of Équiterre was among a host of Quebec environmentalists who met Monday with key cabinet ministers to air their thoughts about the massive — and politically contentious — proposed development in northeastern Alberta. Naturally, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was there. But so was Steven Guilbeault, the rookie politician installed as heritage minister after he was elected in Montreal last fall. In his prior life, Guilbeault was one of Quebec’s most prominent green activists, a vocal campaigner in the fight against climate change, who co-founded Thorpe’s organization and worked there until less than two years ago.
Yet despite Guilbeault’s presence, Thorpe left the meeting with concerns. She had the impression that the Liberal cabinet is divided on the project, meaning it could still go either way.
“We’re on high alert,” she told the Star this week. “I think there’s a lot of work to do to get the different cabinet members understanding the full implications of the project.”
Beatrice Allard, a civil law student at the University of Ottawa who volunteers with the youth group ENvironnement JEUnnesse, was also at Monday’s meeting.
“They said they have not reached a consensus in the cabinet,” Allard said. “I think they’re trying to have an open conversation on … the dilemma that the Trudeau administration has to deal with, which is dealing with Alberta’s interests while being able to deliver their environmental promises.”
Aye, there’s the rub. For a government that has argued it can fight climate change and spur economic growth at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a starker example of those priorities diverging in a single decision.
At an estimated cost of almost $21 billion, the 29,000-hectare Frontier project proposed by Vancouver’s Teck Resources is on the cusp of a crucial, perhaps ultimate, hurdle. A joint panel of federal and Alberta regulators recommended its approval last July, and now it is up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet to decide whether it should go ahead.
The joint panel predicted the project would create thousands of jobs and pump $67 billion into federal and provincial coffers over its 41-year lifespan. Allies of Canada’s oil and gas industry — led by federal Conservatives and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — have seized on those figures, arguing the project is a no-brainer and much-need economic boost for a region simmering with resentment over Ottawa’s environmental policies under the Liberal government. Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs warned on social media this week that “a political rejection of Teck Frontier … will be perceived by most Albertans as a final rejection of Alberta by Canada.”
Terry Parker, executive director of the Building Trades of Alberta, an umbrella group representing 60,000 workers in the province, said the project would be a welcome boost to the economy that has slumped in recent years with a persistent drop in oil prices, among other factors.
“This would be roughly 7,000 jobs for Albertans and another 2,500 after the mine is constructed,” Parker said, citing figures from the panel’s report. “It’s essential to Alberta’s economy that this project move forward.”
On the other side of the divide, environmental groups across the country have banded together to press the federal government to reject the project. They point to the panel’s conclusion that it would have “significant adverse effects” on the environment and traditional Indigenous land use. The project would also belch 4.1 megatonnes of greenhouse gas into the air every year, according to the joint panel — a figure that doesn’t include “downstream” emissions from burning the project’s daily output of 260,000 barrels of oil.
“Full rejection is the only thing that is an acceptable, defensible decision if Canada wants to continue to call itself a leader on climate,” said Julia Levin, climate and energy program manager with Environmental Defence, who pressed Wilkinson about the project during the global climate summit in Madrid two months ago.
Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, says his polling shows a partisan “chasm” between Conservative supporters and more left-leaning Canadians on questions of climate change and energy policy.
“There is a whole complex layer of economic, political and environmental dimensions that makes this one really hard to figure out,” he said.
With so much at play, the Liberal government is keeping its thoughts guarded. A slew of cabinet ministers declined interviews with the Star this week, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan, Guilbeault and Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s parliamentary secretary, Montreal-area MP Peter Schiefke, also declined an interview.
In an emailed statement, Wilkinson told the Star the government will make a decision by the end of February and is considering a range of factors. These include Indigenous reconciliation, economic growth, and the government’s pledge to hit net-zero emissions by 2050, which the Liberals trumpeted as a major climate initiative during last fall’s federal election.
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But some inside the Liberal caucus are publicly urging Trudeau’s cabinet to reject the project. Julie Dabrusin, the Liberal MP for Toronto—Danforth, told the Star she is concerned about the damaging impacts of the project on wildlife and old growth forest in nearby Wood Buffalo National Park. She also questions whether the project would compromise the government’s net-zero pledge. “From everything I’ve read about the Teck Frontier project, I don’t think it should go ahead,” she said.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the Liberal MP for Beaches—East York, said “there’s no way this project” can fit with the government’s commitments to slash emissions.
“In the end, what does the world need and what does the Canadian public right now more than anything? We need climate leadership.” Erskine-Smith told the Star, adding that he is happy the government is listening to MPs voicing opinions against the project.
“They are incredibly serious about consultation with caucus and taking our concerns to heart,” he said.
From its end, Teck Resources claims to have “best-in-class” emissions intensity, though the joint panel concluded the company has not proven this is true. Earlier this week, Teck announced that it will strive to achieve net-zero emissions across the entirety of its operations by 2050, putting them in line with the Liberal government’s signature climate commitment.
Doug Brown, Teck’s director of public affairs, said the company has made space for future carbon capture technology at the proposed Frontier location, and is looking at systems to recycle heat generated from operations to provide power at the site. Brown said the company also supports carbon pricing policies and has signed benefit-sharing deals with all 14 First Nations and Métis communities that would be affected by the Frontier project.
“It’s been going through this process for well over a decade,” Brown said. “If not approval for Frontier, then what project?”
But coherence with reconciliation and environmental priorities might not be enough for Teck to push forward with the project, even if it is approved by Trudeau’s cabinet. At an investor conference on Jan. 29, Teck CEO Donald Lindsay said the project can only go ahead when the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is finished. He also said the company needs a partner and an acceptable price of oil to justify construction.
For Thorpe, Canada would be best served if Ottawa could heave itself out of a false “growth paradigm” that makes destructive oil projects tempting because there is money to be made.
As for Guilbeault, her colleague-turned-cabinet-minister, Thorpe said he surely knows where the environmental movement stands on the looming Frontier decision.
“After that, how he’s going to navigate this—that belongs to him,” she said.