Teck’s decision to bail on Frontier oilsands project lets everyone off the hook to the country’s detriment

Don Lindsay wants us to see him as a martyr.

The chief executive of Teck Resources Ltd. said he bailed on his company’s application to turn 24,000 hectares of northeastern Alberta into a bitumen mine so the country’s political leaders can have “space” to sort out how they want to confront climate change.

“Teck has not taken this decision lightly,” Lindsay said in a letter to Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal environment minister, on Feb. 23. “It is our hope that the decision to withdraw will help to create both the space and impetus needed for this critical discussion to take place for the benefit of all Canadians.”

But here’s the thing: that discussion was happening, thanks to the impetus of a deadline to decide on a project that had the potential to crystalize what this country’s elected government means when it says we can maintain a fossil-fuel industry and fight climate change at the same time.

Instead, Lindsay might have sabotaged the dialogue he said he wants, not encouraged it.

With a federal Conservative leadership race in train, a minority government in Ottawa, and a pack of right-wing premiers keen to blame Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for everything that’s wrong with the country, you tell me if you think Canada’s political leaders will use that “space” constructively?

Deadlines are a feature of modern politics. During the Great Recession, the opening bell on Wall Street was often necessary to get anything done. More recently, the start of the election calendar and the prospect of summer recess have been the best triggers. Regardless, the modern political animal thrives on crisis, real or imagined. Take that away, and it will retreat to the reassuring confines of their various filter bubbles, where denial is celebrated and failure can be described in heroic terms.

Maybe that’s just me. I spent more time at Statistics Canada than at Hy’s Steakhouse during my years as a reporter in Ottawa, so I won’t pretend to be a herald of political outcomes. Lindsay, who I assume has greater access to the country’s power brokers than most of us, thinks his course of action will bring Canada’s warring tribes to the table.

“It is our hope that withdrawing from the process will allow Canadians to shift to a larger and more positive discussion about the path forward,” Lindsay said. “Ultimately, that should take place without a looming regulatory deadline.”

To be sure, a larger and more positive discussion about how to confront climate change is overdue. All things equal, the sight of yet another multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project dying in regulatory quicksand will guarantee that Canada continues its slide down the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business rankings, an important international benchmark of competitiveness. (Canada ranks 23rd in the 2020 report, down from seventh in 2008.)

Lindsay’s decision will be seen by many as a face-saving exercise

However, in this cynical age, Lindsay’s decision will be seen by many as a face-saving exercise, both for Teck, which just last week wrote down the value of its existing oilsands assets, and the prime minister, who was apparently facing a deeply divided cabinet and caucus.

Trudeau’s political enemies surely will be reminded of the Energy East pipeline, on which TC Energy Corp., the company formerly known as TransCanada Corp., bailed as economic and political conditions changed. Conservatives focused only on the political variable, blaming the failure on Trudeau alone, and letting the company and everyone else off the hook. That cycle looked destined to repeat itself in the early aftermath of the Teck decision, layered with allusions to the rail blockades that have choked rail traffic for most of February.

“Weeks of federal indecision on the regulatory approval process and inaction in the face of illegal blockades have created more uncertainty for investors looking at Canada,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said in a statement.

There was no acknowledgement from Kenney that few, if any, neutral observers thought Frontier would go ahead until global oil prices moved back to a level closer to US$70 per barrel, versus the current US$50 to US$60 range. Nor was there any acknowledgement by the premier that Lindsay thinks Alberta is at least partially at fault for the project’s failure. I’m going to quote at length from his letter to Wilkinson to make sure it’s clear that the entire political class is responsible for Frontier’s failure as far as Teck is concerned.

“Global capital markets are changing rapidly and investors and customers are increasingly looking for jurisdictions to have a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change, in order to produce the cleanest possible products,” Lindsay said. “This does not yet exist here today and, unfortunately, the growing debate around this issue has placed Frontier and our company squarely at the nexus of much broader issues that need to be resolved.”

He continued: “In that context, it is now evident that there is no constructive path forward for the project. Questions about the societal implications of energy development, climate change and Indigenous rights are critically important ones for Canada, its provinces and Indigenous governments to work through.”

The consensus of the commentariat at the start of the month was that Trudeau faced a “lose-lose” decision on Frontier. But in the horse race that matters — achieving a national consensus on how to seriously reduce carbon emissions without breaking the economy — he appeared to be ahead by a nose.

Teck had joined the vanguard of big resource companies that have pledged to neutralize their impact on the climate by 2050, the same deadline the Liberal government has set for the country as a whole. As the National Post’s John Ivison observed a couple of weeks ago, Kenney had changed his rhetoric around climate change; he had begun talking of wanting Alberta to pump the last barrel of oil, rather than insisting demand for carbon-based fuel will exist well into the future. There were reports that the Alberta government was prepared to back the province’s emissions cap with tougher regulations.

That was progress. All that was left to do was for Trudeau to remind the greener members of his caucus that they are Liberals, not Greens, and, therefore, have a mandate to progressively constrict emissions, not perform shock therapy on a $2-trillion economy that derives seven per cent of its gross domestic product from mining, oil and natural gas.

I would have taken a bet that Trudeau could have won that confrontation. Now we’ll never know, because Teck and its chief executive relieved the pressure. We’re back to where we were, muddling along to who knows where?


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