Stephen Legault is a political and communications consultant living in Canmore, Alta. He is the author of Taking a Break from Saving the World, due in May, 2020.
Jonathon Wilkinson, the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, will soon make one of the most important decisions of his position: to follow the recommendation of an environmental assessment panel and approve the massive Frontier oil sands mine in Alberta, or to recommend to cabinet that they reject the project.
The commentators have weighed in, including this newspaper, which stated in an editorial that approval of the Frontier oil sands project north of Fort McMurray would be in the best interests of the country, even though the prospects it would be built are slim. The Edmonton Journal’s David Staples wrote in December that “banning the Frontier project will have little or no impact on global carbon emissions. It will only mean that the growing demand for oil worldwide won’t be met by us.” He goes on to characterize Frontier as a “wealth bomb ready to detonate.”
It’s worth noting that Environment Canada’s review of the project stated that emissions would be 20 per cent higher than other oil sands projects.
Approval of Frontier – even if not a single dollar is ever spent toward its completion, and it is likely much more would be doled out – would mean continuing the charade that Alberta has bought into, and rob the province of a more promising and realistic future.
It would contribute to what psychologists call a sunk-cost fallacy, where we continue to invest our time and energy, and our hope for the future, into projects that are no longer realistic. In an Oct. 29 opinion piece in Bloomberg News, Noah Smith wrote: “Where a decade ago people talked fearfully of oil supplies running out, now some are predicting that demand for the black stuff will peak in just a few years.”
Teck Resources Ltd., the proponent of the Frontier project, has estimated the cost of completion to be more than $20-billion – money that the company almost certainly doesn’t have, given that its market worth is just over $11-billion. Teck states that the completion date for the project would be 2026, more than a decade after its original target date of 2015. That seems wildly optimistic, bordering on fantasy, given the state of the global trend away from carbon-intense fuels.
What if we dedicated that time, money, human capital and creativity to projects that anticipated future energy needs rather than romanticizing historical footnotes? Skeptics of the economic value of Frontier suggest that approval of the project, but with strict environmental conditions, would help make the point that it is the market, not the federal government’s heavy-handed climate policy, that is limiting growth of Alberta’s traditional energy sector.
I agree with the logic, but think this would be a costly way of proving a point. The time, energy and money invested in pursuing Frontier could be better spent increasing Alberta and Canada’s capacity for renewable energy production, transportation and storage. Saying no might force companies like Teck and others to accept the reality that climate change provides both staggering challenges for humanity, but also brilliant opportunities for businesses to diversify, meet societal needs and create wealth while they are at it.
The challenge that Frontier illuminates is that the federal government has been too soft, not too hard, on provinces such as Alberta when it comes to climate-change policy. The solution to Alberta’s woes isn’t to be softer on the energy sector and hope that it will learn from its mistakes; it’s to impose tougher rules to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and then create better incentives for investments in new forms of energy, conservation and stewardship.
What if we said no to Frontier? We might just open a whole new frontier of investment, wealth and sustainability.
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