Taseko Mines Ltd. could be forgiven if it is feeling a bit like a pawn in a chess match between the Harper government and British Columbia's First Nations communities.
Ottawa this week rejected for a second time the company's application to build the $1-billion New Prosperity gold and copper mine in the B.C. Interior. While defensible on its own merits, the decision was taken as the government works to build trust with aboriginal communities to win approval for resource projects like Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway pipeline and Kinder Morgan's TransMountain pipeline expansion.
The morning after Environment Canada announced the Prosperity decision, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver defended it using the virtually the same line he has frequently uttered as he seeks to assure Canadians about looming pipeline decisions.
"We don't go ahead with projects that aren't safe for Canadians and safe for the environment," he said.
He added: "The conclusion was that this project would have a significant detrimental effect on the environment, particularly Fish Lake, and so for that reason, the minister of the environment made the recommendation to cabinet that it should be rejected."
But Mr. Oliver rejected any suggestion that rejection would set the stage for approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline. Ottawa is now considering a National Energy Board finding that the highly controversial pipeline would pose little environmental impact that could not be mitigated, and is consulting with First Nations in B.C. on how their issues could be accommodated.
"Those two issues are separate," he said. He refused to comment further on the pipeline project except to note that Ottawa is involved in "an intensive consultation period with aboriginal communities."
Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo personally lobbied against the New Prosperity mine, sources said Friday. And he could be a key ally if he can be persuaded that Ottawa will only proceed with environmentally safe projects. Many of the same First Nations communities who fought Taseko's mine project are also against Northern Gateway.
Aboriginal communities have argued the mine would cause irreparable damage to a lake that is important both economically and culturally, and the federal review process agreed.
But mining industry officials in British Columbia suspect the Prosperity project was sacrificed to the bigger agenda, especially since the Harper government encouraged Taseko to re-apply for a permit after it was first turned down in 2010. Taseko is now pursuing a judicial review of the environmental review released in October that declared its new plan would not protect Fish Lake; that assessment provided the basis for the cabinet decision to reject the project.
Not lost on them is the contrast between Ottawa's rejection of the Taseko mine and its approval of Royal Dutch Shell's Jack Pine oil sands mine in December. In that oil sands case, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency also found the project would cause "significant adverse environmental effects" that could not be mitigated. But Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq decided the negative impacts were "justified in the circumstances."
The Harper government is clearly keen to spur development of the oil sands and the pipelines that are required to get the crude to new markets in eastern Canada, the United States and offshore markets. It insists it will do so responsibly, though its critics believe it is willing to overlook environmental risks in the pursuit of oil-generated wealth.
Certainly, its decision on New Prosperity shows the government is willing to say "no" to a mining project. Whether that helps build trust on the highly-politicized energy front remains to be seen.
Shawn McCarthy reports on energy from Ottawa.