The proposed Frontier oil sands mine in Alberta has attracted a lot of attention in recent weeks, with the Trudeau government appearing to waver on approving a project that has cleared all its regulatory hurdles. That debate encapsulates the strain between a potential economic win and Canada’s climate-change goals.
Frontier, however, is hardly alone among the difficult industrial-development questions facing the country.
New Brunswick is wrestling with its own Frontier-like challenge. In mid-January, a small Toronto company called Maritime Iron filed its plans to the provincial government for an environmental review. The company wants to build a facility to turn iron ore into pig iron, a product used in steelmaking. The site is beside a coal-power plant in rural New Brunswick near Bathurst.
The project, with a construction budget of $1.5-billion, could create 200 permanent jobs. It’s not a small number in region that recently saw the loss of about 400 jobs when a lead smelter was shuttered. Maritime Iron also says its plant could generate $50-million a year in taxes – a boost of about 0.5 per cent to New Brunswick’s annual revenue.
The problematic part of the proposal is the facility’s predicted climate-heating emissions: 2.3 megatonnes a year.
Maritime Iron would not as dirty as Frontier – the mine’s emissions are estimated at 4.1 megatonnes, if it is ever built – but Maritime Iron still would rank as one of the larger emitters in Canada. And in New Brunswick, Maritime Iron would be responsible for a spike in emissions: a 16-per-cent increase over the province’s current total of 14.3 megatonnes.
Maritime Iron has not yet attracted national attention but there is a vigorous debate in New Brunswick, much like the bigger spotlight on Frontier.
The Maritime Iron proposal is a complicated one. The company has suggested a gas byproduct from its operation could help fuel the adjacent coal-power plant. But that facility is supposed to close by 2030, as the coal-power era in Canada comes to an end.
Backers of Maritime Iron also say the plant would use top-tier technology and actually help reduce global emissions. This is a similar argument made by proponents of liquefied natural gas, one whose merit is dubious. Maritime Iron, in its environmental review submission, admitted that, to deal with its increased emissions, New Brunswick will need to look at other sectors to make cuts.
Provincial Environment Minister Jeff Carr has said the potential surge in emissions is “concerning.” Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal environment minister, said provinces need to focus on meeting their emissions targets.
The province has made some progress. Its annual emissions of 14.3 megatonnes – a tiny fraction of Canada’s – is down 28.5 per cent from 20 megatonnes in 2005, mostly because of cleaner power generation. New Brunswick is close to Canada’s Paris Agreement goal of a 30-per-cent cut in 2005 emissions by 2030.
But the province has pledged to go further. It is aiming for 10.7 megatonnes by 2030. Maritime Iron would make it difficult to reach that target.
New Brunswick’s commitment to battling climate change has been mixed, even with its ambitious 2030 target. The province’s Progressive Conservative government is introducing a carbon tax for individuals but it is also cutting its existing gas tax – effectively muting the carbon tax’s impact. The province has also been trying to get Ottawa to approve an industrial carbon tax of its own design, which some have assessed as inadequate.
The potential benefits of Maritime Iron, the jobs and added provincial revenues, are important but do not appear to clearly outweigh the environmental costs. The 200 jobs at Maritime Iron, for example, are small when compared with the 2,500 jobs at Frontier if the mine is built.
The provincial government needs to be skeptical of Maritime Iron. New Brunswick’s economy faces the same challenge as other provinces, like LNG in British Columbia and oil-sands expansion in Alberta, at a time when emissions are supposed to fall, not rise.
This clash between economy and environment will become a constant question in Canada. The federal government believes a balance can be achieved.
Whether in the oil sands or on the East Coast, reality is much more complicated.