With a federal cabinet decision on Teck Resources’ controversial Frontier tar sands/oil sands mine looming by the end of the month, some of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own caucus members are declaring the project a no-win proposition for the minority Liberal government, while polling shows Canadian voters split on the project.
“Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who backs the C$21-billion project, has declared it a litmus test of Ottawa’s new post-election focus on the economic woes facing the West,” the Toronto Star reports. “Yet those opposing the development hold it up as a different test, of the environmental credentials of the Liberal government and their commitment to combat climate change, as championed in the election campaign just last fall.”
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And that leads to “another worrisome dynamic for the prime minister,” the Star adds: “Approving the project would almost certainly roil relations with a sizable number of Liberal MPs concerned that such a decision would undermine the party’s environmental agenda.”
“There is an animus in the caucus where they are a bit exercised about this. It’s primarily on environmental grounds that we are being hypocrites,” an unnamed Ontario Liberal MP told the Star last week. “There’s very little upside and a whole bunch of downside.”
The MP added that Trudeau has to take caucus views into account, particularly in a minority parliament.
“I don’t think he has any choice,” the MP said. “It’s a difficult decision, it’s a political decision, and he has to keep caucus a lot happier than he used to.”
While the unnamed MP expressed the loudest concerns about the project, he wasn’t alone.
“We’ve made commitments on climate change. We’ve got commitments to our children on climate change. We have action to take on climate change,” said Toronto-area MP Adam Vaughan. “It’s been too slow coming and so on that front…I think I’ve become, if anything, even a stronger environmentalist.” From that starting point, he told Ottawa media earlier this month, “I think you can tell where I stand on the project.”
Quebec MP Joël Lightbound said it’s “fundamental” Canada achieve its carbon reduction targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement, though he told reporters that wasn’t a comment on the specific project.
“The prime minister and his inner circle were reportedly taken aback” by the “vocal caucus pushback”, reports veteran Star columnist Chantal Hébert. But the paper echoes earlier reports that the project triggered intense discussion within the Liberal caucus. “Some Liberal MPs argue that they’ve already made one big political concession with the government’s 2018 purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, a move made to ensure its expansion,” the paper notes. Earlier this month, “Finance Minister Bill Morneau was forced to defend the merits of the project following news that the expansion cost had ballooned to $12.6 billion.”
If anything, the divided Liberal caucus is an apt measure of a divided country, with an Angus Reid poll last week showing 49% of Canadians supporting Teck and 40% opposed.
“Many take a firm stance,” the opinion research firm states. “One-quarter (24%) say they strongly support the construction of the $20-billion mine, primarily comprised of prairie residents and past Conservative voters. Meanwhile, the same number (25%) say they strongly oppose the project, led by left-leaning Quebecers and British Columbians, both groups that the Trudeau Liberals relied on heavily in the last federal election.”
While one in five said Teck’s recent announcement of a 2050 net-zero target might make them a little more likely to support the project, 77% said it would make no difference to them.
Whichever way the cabinet decision goes, meanwhile, the Pembina Institute is already pointing to the project as an example of a failed regulatory process. In a Globe and Mail op ed last week, Executive Director Simon Dyer pointed to deep shortcomings in the federal-provincial review panel report that has since been cited to justify the project.
“A casual observer might assume that given the potential environmental and economic impacts, this process would have been comprehensive,” Dyer writes. “Yet the panel’s report, which shares the reasoning behind the decision, is remarkably weak on its considerations of climate impacts. Surprisingly, no conditions were proposed that mitigated any of the project’s climate effects. In a year in which two-thirds of Canadians voted for stronger climate action, this is unacceptable.”
Out of a 1,300-page report, only seven addressed the project’s climate impacts, “and in that space, the panel dismissed much of the evidence put in front of it,” he adds. “Moreover, the panel remained silent on whether emissions from the mine would result in a ‘significant adverse effect’.”
With its slipshod treatment of climate impacts, its uncritical acceptance of the claim that the project would be best in class for emissions, and its failure to consider a range of forecasts for future oil prices, the panel report was “proof of the need for better climate assessments in project decision-making,” Dyer adds. “Canada’s new Impact Assessment Act has the potential to treat greenhouse gas effects more rigorously, but it is still unclear what guidance future panels will be given to properly assess climate.”