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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Dec. 9, 2019, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Jonathan Wilkinson, Canada’s new Environment and Climate Change Minister, points out that he has been on the job only three weeks. Translation: Cut me some slack, please, I don’t have all the answers.

But he’ll have to learn quickly. At the end of February, he has to decide whether to approve Teck Resources Ltd.’s enormous Frontier oil sands project or refer it to the wider Liberal cabinet. Either way, it will be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t moment that will be instrumental in defining the federal government’s carbon-reduction trajectory and its relationship with Alberta.

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. Turning down the project would ignite a war with Alberta.

Mr. Kenney is, in effect, pitching Ottawa’s options on Frontier as the environment versus Canadian unity. Alienation in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which say federal policies hurt their oil and gas sectors, has become a focus since the Liberals were shut out of the two provinces in the October election. The question is how much weight the federal government will put on the project’s environmental impact, notably its greenhouse gas emissions in an era of “climate crisis” – in Mr. Wilkinson’s words.

In a possible hint of what he plans to do in February, Mr. Wilkinson said he expects a decision by the summer, maybe earlier.

“The issues around greenhouse gases associated with the project are absolutely relevant to the decision that the federal cabinet will need to take,” Mr. Wilkinson said in an interview on Wednesday with The Globe and Mail. “Any decision [cabinet] needs to take will certainly be in the context of the commitments we have made on the climate plan.”

Mr. Wilkinson is making his international debut this week at the Madrid climate change conference known as COP25, where the goal is to approve the “rule book” – Article 6 of the 2015 Paris climate agreement – that would create a global emissions-trading market and put a price on carbon. Countries that can’t meet their carbon-reduction targets will have to buy credits from those who exceed theirs. As of Wednesday, negotiators said progress on Article 6 was scant.

Other than dispatching his top climate negotiators to try to ensure Article 6 doesn’t die in Madrid, Mr. Wilkinson, a former clean-technology executive who was most recently minister of Fisheries and Oceans, has been trying to burnish Canada’s climate image. The government of Stephen Harper was criticized for agreeing to emissions-reduction targets internationally but doing little to achieve them.

In short, Mr. Wilkinson is insisting Canada must meet or exceed its 2030 target, which would take emissions to 30 per cent less than they were in 2005, and get to net zero by 2050. The latter is a formidable goal, all the more so since Canada has blown every reduction target it has ever set by a fat margin. “We’re going through an economic transition that will inevitably have to be a much lower carbon future,” he said. “When you’re talking about net zero in 2050, it’s obviously a much bigger step.”

Mr. Wilkinson’s plan is a work in progress, but involves determining “pathways” to a low-carbon future. He hopes a breakthrough technology, such as a way to make clean-burning hydrogen economical, will ease Canada’s transition. The nuclear option might be explored, he said, such as the use of compact reactors to generate power in the oil sands. In the meantime, the federal government and most provinces will put pressure on big emitters of greenhouse gases – oil and gas, transportation, manufacturing, electricity generation – to cut their carbon footprints.

If the collective effort doesn’t work, Canada may have to buy emissions credits, which is one of the reasons he and his negotiators are keen to see Article 6 implemented. “I wouldn’t rule out that we would use emissions trading as part of that plan, but the bulk of the work we’ll be doing will be to reduce the source of domestic emissions,” he said.

Clamping down on domestic emissions means clamping down on the oil and gas industry, which is mostly based in Alberta. In 2017, according to government figures, oil and gas was the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, at 27 per cent of the total (transportation was second). Between 1990 and 2017, emissions from the oil and gas sector rose by 84 per cent, largely because of the expansion of the oil sands.

One of the biggest expansions is in the works. Teck’s proposed $20-billion-plus Frontier project would be a monster. Located 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta., and 30 kilometres south of Wood Buffalo National Park, it would have production capacity of 260,000 barrels a day – almost 10 per cent of current oil sands output. It would cover 24,000 hectares, and include two open pits, a bitumen processing plant and tailings ponds. The project is expected to pump out four million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year and last for 41 years.

Frontier is emerging as one of the bogeymen of the Madrid climate conference. It has been the target of several small protests, and François Paulette, the climate representative of the Smith’s Landing and Dene First Nations, went to Madrid to raise awareness about its environmental dangers. “We’re already impacted directly by the tar sands’ pollution,” he told The Globe. “There is already a high degree of cancer along the Slave and MacKenzie rivers. … Frontier is totally contrary to Canada’s environmental thinking.”

A joint panel of the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency gave Frontier a green light last summer. But the panel said the project would have “serious adverse effects” on the environment and nearby Indigenous communities.

Mr. Wilkinson indicated that a decision on Frontier won’t be easy for both 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. … Premier 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.

“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.”

Follow Eric Reguly on Twitter: @eregulyOpens in a new window

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