OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heard an earful from his Liberal caucus Wednesday, with MPs passionately urging his cabinet not to approve Teck Resources Limited’s massive $20-billion Frontier Oil Sands Mine Project in Alberta.
Many Grit MPs, having promised voters during last fall’s election campaign that they would be an environmentally focused government, are adamantly opposed to the approval of a huge new carbon-intensive project. The proposal would see the mine north of Fort McMurray operate for 41 years, cover more than 29,200 hectares and produce about 260,000 barrels of bitumen per day.
“If we are truly committed to net zero by 2050, and to the science, and to the world, and to our future and tackling climate change,” Beaches–East York’s Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told HuffPost Canada, “there is no explanation sitting here today as to how this project fits within that commitment. So should it proceed as it stands? I think it’s a pretty easy no.”
Watch: Alberta premier wants Ottawa to fast track Teck Frontier mine. Story continues below video.
Pontiac MP Will Amos seemed to agree.
“I think we have made significant commitments to achieve net zero by 2050,” he said. “I think we’ve made significant commitments to achieve our Paris climate commitments. … we have to meet those and my constituents demand that we meet those, and our grandchildren demand that we meet those.”
Many Liberals acknowledged that during the campaign they were frequently met with pushback from constituents incredulous at the Grits’ new environmental pledges after the Trudeau government approved not once but twice the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project — and purchased the existing pipeline to ensure the project got built.
Candidates who were eager to talk about the Trudeau government putting a price on carbon, phasing out of coal-fired electricity, curbing methane emissions, and making large investments in greener transit and clean technology were met with comments such as, “Yeah, but you bought a pipeline.”
Towards the end of the campaign, in Ontario especially where the Liberals won enough seats to form government, the party ran ads showing smokestacks and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. The message said the Tories would rip up the Liberals’ climate plan and trumpeting the Grits’ climate fighting credentials.
As parliamentary secretary for science, Amos said he was urging cabinet to have “regard for the science, have regard for climate science, have regard for the science laid out quite clearly in the joint panel report.”
Last July, a report by a Joint Review Panel found the project would result in 7,000 jobs during its construction phase and 2,500 thereafter, as well as about $70 billion worth of taxes and royalties to local, provincial and federal governments. But the project would have “significant adverse environmental effects” on wetlands, old-growth forests, wetland- and old-growth-reliant species at risk, the Ronald Lake bison herd, the Canada lynx, woodland caribou and other biodiversity. It would also significantly adversely affect Indigenous groups, their land rights, resources and culture.
The project has been estimated to produce 4.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year and, the joint panel found, might make it more difficult to achieve Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets — though it acknowledged that it did not have the scope or the authority to evaluate just what the mine’s impact might be on Canada’s international commitments or Alberta’s climate plan.
Weak energy prices a factor in project, Teck CEO says
Pickering–Uxbridge MP Jennifer O’Connell called the environment “one of the biggest issues” in her riding. The government needs to help grow the economy, she said, but “I just know that if we are going to be serious about climate change and hitting our emissions, then that is what we need to factor [into] any project and any policy we consider as a government.”
As the federal cabinet weighs approval, Teck CEO Don Lindsay said in a news release Monday that the company would set an objective to be carbon neutral by 2050. It didn’t explicitly say how it would achieve that goal. In January, Lindsay noted that even with federal approval, the project may not get built because of, among other factors, weak energy prices.
Liberal sources say some in cabinet want to explore the possibility of tying approval of the project to tougher environmental regulations in Alberta — something that would be hard, if not impossible to ensure, but could help avoid inflaming sentiments of Western alienation.
Liberal MP John McKay said he hadn’t decided one way or another where he stands on the issue. “I’m at sixes and sevens; I haven’t come around to it.”
Others, such as parliamentary secretaries Joël Lightbound, from Louis-Hébert, Que., and Adam van Koeverden, from Milton, Ont., said they did not want to comment on the Teck mine. “I’m listening with my ears and gathering as much information as I can,” Van Koeverden offered.
“I think it’s a challenge.”
Peter Schiefke, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of the environment and climate change, said he is confident the cabinet will take “everything under consideration.”
“I think it’s a challenge, I think one of the things we have to do as a government, which we’ve pledged to Canadians, is find that balance between economic growth and environmental protection, and the decision rendered by cabinet is going to have to be one that finds that balance.” He noted that he would support cabinet whatever it decides.
“I know that they’ve listened to all of us and also looked at all the options on the table in rendering that decision.”
Erskine-Smith said he believes the government could show Albertans it is serious about their future by “putting lots of money” into a “Just Transition Act” to help citizens and workers. It isn’t a wise strategy to approve projects hoping they don’t get built, he said.
“The legacy that we leave in this place will be on climate action. I truly believe that. If we are not leading the world on this, I’m not really sure what we are doing.”