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Exploration and development camp at the Frontier Project. While thoughtful in places, Teck's letter is also frustratingly vague in explaining what might have avoided this outcome.Handout Teck Resources

The letter that accompanies Teck Resources Ltd.’s withdrawal of its application for the Frontier oil sands mine is a Rorschach test.

To those who already believe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is an enemy of Alberta’s economy, its citing of political uncertainty is proof that the federal government – through its equivocation about whether to approve the project, its handling of the rail blockade crisis related to a different energy-sector development, or countless other Liberal sins – just cost the province thousands of jobs and billions of dollars.

To those already convinced that Jason Kenney is a dinosaur who stands in the way of transitioning from a carbon-intensive economy, the letter’s call for governments to better reconcile resource development with climate change is evidence the Alberta Premier is his province’s worst enemy.

To those certain the project was economically doomed regardless of political approval, the letter’s timing – days before it may have finally received the green light from Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet – just proves that Teck was looking for an out.

For leaving all that room for interpretation, Teck itself deserves some blame. While thoughtful in places, its letter is also frustratingly vague in explaining what might have avoided this outcome.

Among other unanswered questions: If Teck supports measures such as carbon pricing and legislated caps for oil sands emissions (the latter of which Alberta’s Environment Minister promised just days ago), then what further policies are missing from the governmental “framework” to reassure investors that “the cleanest possible products” are being developed?

But a lot of the responsibility, for fallout likely to exacerbate the polarization the letter laments, rests with those who recently raised this previously obscure decision facing Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals to the level of a defining national moment.

It can’t be said often enough: Hardly anybody was talking about the Liberals’ looming decision on whether to approve the Frontier mine a few months ago, even in Alberta. It wasn’t a big topic last summer when the project received a rather tentative approval recommendation from a federal-provincial panel, nor in the fall election campaign.

The decision merited some scrutiny, since it was a valid question whether the project’s theoretical annual addition of roughly four megatonnes of carbon emissions could be compatible with Ottawa’s emissions reduction goals. But as a long-term play – Teck’s chief executive officer effectively acknowledged last month that it was only going to come to fruition if economic circumstances became much more favourable to new oil sands projects – it didn’t deserve to suddenly become the country’s single most prominent climate change file.

In retrospect, the Liberals could have prevented the issue from spiralling out of control by quickly accepting or rejecting the proposal quickly after their re-election. Instead, they left just enough room for those who know how to play to the most visceral anxieties around the future of fossil fuels.

Nobody did more to elevate the issue than Mr. Kenney, who suddenly began very publicly lobbying Ottawa for approval as a way to keep Albertans rallied behind him. In the process, he helped environmental groups convince their followers that the project would be a definitive test of whether the Liberals had the stomach to withstand pressure from the oil sector and its political allies. It all made for an irresistible media narrative, with a fresh tension point by which to frame the new minority government.

So where did a couple of months with the Frontier mine as the be-all and end-all of Canadian climate and energy policy leave us?

A project that probably wouldn’t have happened even if approved, and would have added about a half a percentage point to Canada’s current emissions total, now certainly won’t happen. Meanwhile, Albertans are angrier than before; environmentalists are more easily accused of stomping on economic opportunity. And less attention has been paid, in government and by the public, to other climate and energy policy matters of greater foreseeable consequence.

Amid all the reactions by those who spent the past couple of months being riled up, there is the odd optimist who sees in Teck’s letter a potential turning point.

Here is a Canadian mining company – unpleasantly surprised to suddenly find itself at the “nexus” of fractious climate and energy politics, and hastily removing itself – telling everyone to take a deep breath if they want to avoid scaring away other investments. Perhaps politicians, environmentalists and industry advocates will now heed the letter’s advice to “shift to a larger and more positive discussion about the path forward.”

But so far, as a result of the preceding hype, the withdrawal of the project is just pushing us even further from that fresh path.

A slightly more modest hope is that, after this episode, all concerned won’t leap upon the next available opportunity to boil the complexities of decarbonizing the economy into an overdramatized battle of allegiances that reinforces pre-existing biases. We can’t afford to keep doing this to ourselves.

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