On the question of whether to approve Teck Resources Ltd.'s Frontier mine, there may be no good answer – one that won’t either cause outrage in Alberta or infuriate environmentalists – available to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.
But this is one instance in which even a bad answer would be better than no answer at all.
Less than a week from the Feb. 28 deadline for a federal decision on the massive proposed oil sands project, punting the ruling down the road remains a possibility. Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has repeatedly said that the law under which the proposal is being assessed allows for a deadline extension, and his office confirmed late Friday that remains on the table.
There are ways Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals could justify postponement. They could suggest they’re waiting to see whether Jason Kenney’s Alberta government commits to legislating emission caps or targets, or whether the province works through tensions with First Nations chiefs who object to the project. The latter could tie into a case for avoiding a controversial ruling just as the country is trying to get through the crisis involving hereditary chiefs’ opposition to construction of a natural-gas pipeline in British Columbia.
While those factors can’t be written off entirely, it would be hard to see them as anything but cover for the Liberals’ inability to work through internal discord on what to do about Teck. They are divided on whether they would rather be accused of hypocrisy on climate change or jeopardizing national unity.
Nothing that happens in the months ahead will prevent one or the other of those reactions, whenever the decision comes down.
What postponing would do, based on how this issue has played out so far, is cause the decision – about a project that may not happen regardless because of financing challenges – to keep taking on outsized stakes. And it would continue to hijack the national discourse around how to reconcile environmental and economic imperatives in transitioning toward a low-carbon future.
It’s remarkable how quickly the Teck decision, which has loomed since a federal-provincial panel’s qualified approval recommendation last July, has already become inescapable. As recently as November, even some people in leadership roles around Alberta’s energy industry would respond blankly to mentions of it. Leaders of environmental groups talked about rolling out campaigns against it heading into 2020, but few gave the impression it topped their agenda.
That it has since become the most controversial decision facing Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet is a testament to both sides’ ability to rally the like-minded. That applies especially to Mr. Kenney, who recognized an opportunity to present the federal government as the only thing standing between Alberta and renewed prosperity. Placing Teck at the centre of his messaging, acting as though it’s a guaranteed source of thousands of jobs, he has signalled to both oil-supportive and climate-concerned Canadians that it’s a definitive test of Ottawa’s allegiances.
It’s fair game for him to advocate on behalf of Alberta’s industrial interests, particularly because there are relevant matters of precedent in play. Albertans can reasonably worry that if Mr. Trudeau’s government rejects Teck on climate-change grounds, it would be hard-pressed to later approve other large oil-sands projects. Conversely, if the Liberals green-light a 24,000-hectare mine intended to produce up to 260,000 barrels of oil daily, environmentalists could reasonably question what the government would say no to.
But the decision, while relevant, does not stand to make or break the future of Alberta’s oil sector. If economic circumstances prove favourable enough that a green-lit Teck were able to secure financing to proceed, that would presumably mean robust investment in lots of other projects – including a slew of smaller ones already approved. If those aren’t going forward, Teck is likely a moot point.
It’s also not going to make or break Canada’s long-term contribution to the global climate-change fight, or even where the oil sands fit into that. Depending on provincial or federal math, oil extraction in Alberta currently accounts for between about 68 and 87 megatonnes of carbon emissions annually. The Frontier mine would likely add a significant but not game-changing four megatonnes to that annual total – and, again, only if economics were such that extraction could be expected to continually rise elsewhere in Alberta.
Meanwhile, every day that it drags on, the Teck debate distracts from other governmental choices that could have greater bearing on future economic competitiveness and sustainability, when Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals don’t have much time to waste.
It’s hard to overstate how many complex, ambitious policies Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals have committed to setting in place before their minority government’s uncertain end date – from a new Clean Fuel Standard, to other measures to lower emissions from vehicles and buildings, to supports for clean technology development, to legislating emissions-reductions targets and accountability mechanisms – to make Canada a leader in the climate fight.
Mr. Wilkinson is supposed to be spearheading a good chunk of that behind the scenes and bringing Canadians along with it.
He’s also Mr. Trudeau’s point person on the Frontier mine. So for as long as it’s unresolved, that’s where he’ll be spending much of his time and energy.
The decision that’s due is only going to get more painful, and more costly, the longer he and his colleagues stall. It’s time to rip off the Band-Aid.