Varcoe: As Frontier goes down to the wire, sides grow more polarized

Walking around Parliament Hill to meet several federal cabinet ministers on Thursday, it didn’t take long for Don Scott to run directly into the opposition facing Canada’s oilsands sector.

The mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo was in Ottawa with several council colleagues to exhort the Trudeau government to approve the proposed Frontier oilsands project.

On his way to a morning meeting, Scott bumped into a protester with a sign who opposes the massive $20.6-billion development proposed by Teck Resources Ltd.

“It is completely polarized and I certainly sensed that,” said Scott, who had a brief conversation with the protester.

“I said there are a lot of economic benefits to this project … just to remind him there is something positive about this project that he needs to take into account.”

The brief encounter didn’t shift the thinking from either camp.

With a decision expected next week by the Trudeau government on the project, the chance encounter underscores that bedrock support — and staunch opposition — to the development has only solidified in recent weeks.

“Just like his efforts weren’t convincing me of anything, I don’t know that my efforts convinced him of anything either,” Scott said Thursday evening.

Such opposing viewpoints over the project appear increasingly irreconcilable, leaving the Trudeau government with another pressure-packed decision that will have implications for Canadian oilsands development.

The stakes are also high for the local municipality, province and federal governments, Indigenous communities and Vancouver-based Teck Resources.

On Friday, the company released fourth-quarter results and noted it will take a

$1.1-billion impairment charge

if Ottawa rejects the development, reflecting an expensive and lengthy pursuit of building the oilsands mine in northern Alberta.

The company first submitted an environmental impact assessment back in 2011. A joint federal-provincial review panel issued a positive recommendation for Frontier last July.

With the federal government’s commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in Canada by 2050, it’s under pressure — including from more than

40 Nobel laureates who released a letter Friday

— to kill the initiative.

“We don’t know what the decision is going to be,” Teck Resources CEO Don Lindsay said Friday on an analysts’ call. “It’s anyone’s guess.”

For Scott and the Kenney government, this has become an assessment of Ottawa’s long-term support for the oilsands sector and whether it can keep growing.

The project is expected to create 7,000 jobs during construction and up to 2,500 positions during the mine’s planned 41-year life. It will also contribute billions of dollars to federal, provincial and municipal governments.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the project are estimated to be about 4.1


of carbon dioxide per year.

Scott said the jobs and investment are needed in the Fort McMurray area. The mayor noted the region lost about 1,000 jobs last month alone.

Rejecting the project would also send out a dismal signal to international investors and inflame national unity divisions.

“I am very concerned what a negative decision would do, as far as the feelings of western alienation that have been pretty rampant,” he said.

Scott met with Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and MP Jim Carr, the prime minister’s special representative for the Prairies. He didn’t receive any assurances about what the decision would be, but was told the project would get a fair hearing.

The municipal contingent said they were asked about Alberta’s

100-megatonne oilsands emissions cap

(which still lacks regulations), and how it would be received if the federal government considered an approval with conditions.

“I would bet it’s going to be passed, but I truly think it might come with some strings,” said Coun. Verna Murphy.

In a letter this week to provincial Environment Minister Jason Nixon, Wilkinson said total oilsands emissions would “bump up” against the 100-megatonne cap in 2030, according to federal data. The two ministers spoke on the phone Friday afternoon.

“We would be prepared to institute the regulations,” Nixon said in an interview.

“We are not giving a blank cheque, so it would have to be done in such a way that continues to allow our industry to succeed.”

The lobbying is also continuing on the other side.

On Friday, Nobel prize winners from around the world issued a letter calling on the Trudeau government to reject the project, saying there is no room to expand the fossil fuel sector.

Approving the project is incompatible with the Liberal government’s net-zero emissions promise, and “the mere fact that they warrant debate in Canada should be seen as a disgrace,” the letter stated.

It also claimed that “with clear infringements on First Nations rights, such projects fly in the face of rhetoric and purported efforts towards reconciliation.”

Yet, Teck has signed support agreements with all 14 Indigenous communities in the area, located between Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan.

Chief Archie Waquan of the Mikisew Cree First Nation issued a statement Friday reiterating the nation’s support for the venture, noting Frontier was approved after the community rigorously evaluated Teck’s environmental and social commitments, as well as the mitigation and accommodation measures.

“I suspect many of (the Nobel signatories) did not have before them the full facts on this case, because the opponents of this mine don’t want people to know the full facts,” Premier Jason Kenney said in Calgary.

Some analysts doubt

the massive project will get the green light from Teck due to a sharp drop in oil prices since Frontier was first pitched.

The company said Friday it’s continuing with efforts to optimize the project, which it

believes “will confirm that the project will be technically feasible and commercially viable.”

Ultimately, Frontier has gone through a nearly decade-long process and was approved by regulators, Scott noted.

“One thing an approval will do, no matter whether it goes forward or not, is at least it will signal to the rest of the investing world that the oilsands are open for business,” the mayor said.

“In the meantime, we should make the right decision for all Canadians, which is approving this project.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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