The massive Teck Frontier tar sands/oil sands mine in Alberta is emerging as an early test of the re-elected Trudeau government’s climate commitment, with a cabinet decision due in February and campaigners gearing up to oppose a megaproject that would run through 2067 and increase Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by six million tonnes per year.
The stage is set for a major battle over Teck, with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney making approval of the project one of his key demands on a visit to Ottawa earlier this week, even as federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson committed the country to net-zero emissions by 2050 in his speech to the UN climate conference in Madrid.
“This week, the Canadian government is in Madrid telling the world that climate action is its No. 1 priority,” veteran climate campaigner Tzeporah Berman writes for The Guardian. “When they get home, Justin Trudeau’s newly re-elected government will decide whether to throw more fuel on the fires of climate change by giving the go-ahead to construction of the largest open-pit oil sands mine in Canadian history.”
The C$20.6-billion project, about 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, “would disturb 292 square kilometres of pristine wetlands and boreal forest over its 40-year lifespan (although Teck won’t actively mine its whole lease at once),” CBC writes. “That’s an area half the size of the city of Edmonton.”
Approving the Frontier Mine “would effectively signal Canada’s abandonment of its international climate goals,” Berman says, noting that its emissions would land “on top of the increasing amount of carbon that Canada’s petroleum producers are already pumping out every year.” Moreover, “the Teck mega mine would be on Dene and Cree territory, close to Indigenous communities. The area is home to one of the last free-roaming herds of wood bison, it’s along the migration route for the only wild population of endangered whooping cranes, and is just 30 kilometres from the boundary of Wood Buffalo National Park—a UNESCO world heritage site because of its cultural importance and biodiversity.”
She adds that, “from a climate and economic perspective, Canada clearly needs a different plan than expanding oil and gas.” On his first day as environment minister, she says Wilkinson pledged “to support the oil and gas industry by addressing the high carbon problem, not by reducing production but by reducing emissions per barrel of oil,” even though the industry has failed to bring down its emissions per barrel for decades. With oil and gas companies pushing exotic and as-yet unproven carbon capture and storage techniques as an alternative to a managed fossil phaseout, “we cannot afford the promise of future technologies to justify the expansion of fossil fuels that will lock the world into a high emissions future and delay the shift to renewable energy and electrification,” she writes. “At this moment in history it is simply not enough to plan to more efficiently burn the planet.”
The Globe and Mail casts the decision on Teck as “a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t moment” for Wilkinson and the rest of the cabinet. “If the project is approved, as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney so desperately wants, Canada’s plan to transition to a low-carbon economy, then to a ‘net zero’ emissions economy by 2050, might go from the difficult to the virtually impossible without miracle technology, or shipping fortunes overseas to buy carbon credits,” writes European Bureau Chief Eric Reguly. “Turning down the project would ignite a war with Alberta.”
“The issues around greenhouse gases associated with the project are absolutely relevant to the decision that the federal cabinet will need to take,” Wilkinson told the Globe Wednesday. “Any decision [cabinet] needs to take will certainly be in the context of the commitments we have made on the climate plan.”
Reporting from Madrid, Reguly notes that “Frontier is emerging as one of the bogeymen of the Madrid climate conference. It has been the target of several small protests, and [Elder] François Paulette, the climate representative of the Smith’s Landing and Dene First Nations, went to Madrid to raise awareness” about its environmental impacts.
“We’re already impacted directly by the tar sands’ pollution,” Paulette told Reguly. “There is already a high degree of cancer along the Slave and MacKenzie rivers,” and “Frontier is totally contrary to Canada’s environmental thinking.”
A joint panel of the Alberta Energy Regulator-Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel approved the project last summer, even as it acknowledged its “serious adverse effects” for the environment and nearby Indigenous communities.
Wilkinson said the decision on Teck would be difficult for environmental and political reasons.
“We have been very clear that climate change and fighting climate change is an important priority,” he said. “But I think Canadians also want their government looking to be as responsive as it possibly can be to the concerns and aspirations of all regions of the country, including hydrocarbon-producing regions like Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
Jason Kenney “has made it very clear that the Teck project is important for him, but ultimately we’re going to have to try to find a way to navigate through a decision and project that has a number of challenges,” Wilkinson added. “I can’t prejudge the decision of the federal cabinet, but what I can tell you is that the issue around the greenhouse gases associated with that project will be very much relevant to the decision that cabinet will take.”
In northern Alberta, meanwhile, a First Nation that wants Teck Frontier to go ahead says Kenney is sabotaging the project by refusing to meet with the community to address environmental concerns. “The Alberta government is killing its own oilsands project by not negotiating with ACFN,” Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam told CBC News.
“Unlike past oilsands projects, Frontier isn’t getting vocal opposition from large numbers of Indigenous communities,” CBC writes. “Teck has secured the support of all 14 First Nations and Métis communities the mine affects. That includes the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation—which Kenney singled out in recent remarks by noting its chief once hosted anti-oilsands Hollywood celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jane Fonda.”
But while Kenney said the project has Adam’s conditional support, Adam warned the province still has some outstanding environmental issues to address.
“The premier has to take a step back,” he said. “We won’t let Canada approve this project unless Alberta is at the table fulfilling their obligations. Because we are not just going to take hot air anymore.” Those concerns include the loss of fish, bison, and caribou habitat in the area affected by the mine.
While the Athabasca Chipewyan negotiate with Teck and the province, Indigenous Climate Action rejects the project outright. The group says a refusal would be a first step for Canada in responding to an analysis released last week by the Global Gas & Oil Network (GGON), which identified fossil companies in the United States and Canada as the biggest investors in a planned US$1.4-trillion oil and gas project boom between 2020 and 2024.
“This project did not consult with us, their report did not include Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge,” Paulette said in a release from Madrid. “As long as traditional knowledge of First Nations is missing from your report, you are missing the most important part of our relationship with Mother Earth, so do your homework before you build projects that are going to destroy yourself and the Earth.”
“The largest tar sands mine on the planet is being proposed in my people’s territory right now,” said Indigenous Climate Action Executive Director Eriel Deranger. “It will impact the woodland buffalo, the last remaining wild whooping cranes on the planet, and many of the animals my people rely on for food. Aside from the detrimental impacts it will have on my peoples’ food security, treaty rights, and water, it will add 6.1 megatonnes of carbon annually to the atmosphere. We must force Canada to reject Teck.”