Driving north from Fort McMurray, it’s about 30 kilometres to the first oil sands mine. Drive another 50 kilometres and the northernmost mines come into view. The proposed Frontier mine lies 30 kilometres farther, beyond existing roads and on the fringe of Alberta’s oil sands.
Frontier is also on the economic fringe.
Teck Resources, the project’s owner, is nevertheless awaiting permission from Ottawa to go ahead with the project. The federal cabinet must deliver its answer before March.
We believe the Trudeau government should give its approval. We also believe that, even after approval is granted, Frontier is likely to remain unbuilt, possibly forever. It’s a megaproject that doesn’t appear to make business sense, absent higher oil prices.
Frontier has nevertheless become an obsession for both opponents and backers of the oil industry.
To environmentalists, a green light for Frontier would be a betrayal of Canada’s climate-change commitments. Supporters, led by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, say Ottawa must approve it as soon as possible.
If the mine is built, it could produce 170,000 barrels a day of bitumen within a year of opening, currently pencilled in for 2026. A decade later, it could reach 260,000 barrels a day. Canada’s current oil sands production is about three million barrels a day and is projected to reach four million in 2030.
If built, Frontier would also pump out an annual 4.1 megatonnes of climate-heating pollution. That would come on top of this country’s already surging oil sands emissions. In 2017, the most recent official tally, oil sands emissions were 81 megatonnes, more than double from 2005. That wiped out all of the hard-won emission cuts to Canada’s electrical grid, led by Ontario.
By 2030, Ottawa forecasts 106 megatonnes of emissions from the oil sands. That would be 20 per cent of the country’s total if Canada reaches its 2030 Paris Agreement targets, an effort that calls for big cuts elsewhere in the economy.
If built, Frontier could mean 7,000 construction jobs, plus 2,500 more for mine operations. Frontier could add $1.5-billion a year to Alberta’s GDP – a boost of about 0.4 per cent from recent levels.
Reality should temper the fears of Frontier’s opponents, and the hopes of its cheerleaders.
The mine’s original predicted opening date was 2015. That was later pushed back to 2021, and then 2026. As its name suggests, Frontier is a stretch without high oil prices. Teck has said little about the project over the past year. It issued no news release when Frontier won regulatory approval from a joint Alberta-federal review earlier this year, the last step before cabinet approval. It has limited spending to regulatory matters, and its last construction price estimate was $21-billion, more than Teck’s market capitalization of $13-billion.
Climate activists want Ottawa to say no to Frontier. But saying no doesn’t diminish demand for oil, in Canada or around the world. It doesn’t prevent that demand from being met by an additional 260,000 barrels of oil a day from somewhere else on the planet. Global oil production will continue in decades ahead at lower but still significant volumes even as the world cuts back.
For Ottawa, its Frontier decision should be about ensuring that strong climate rules are in place across the Canada, starting with the carbon tax. Everyone, including oil producers, has to contribute. An ever-escalating carbon tax on industrial operations such as the oil sands will encourage ever-greater emission reductions. Ottawa’s job is to design a robust framework for carbon reduction, and then leave it to individuals and businesses to choose their path.
The Trudeau government should approve Frontier. That approval, however, should not be without conditions.
In its regulatory review, Teck argued Frontier would meet top green standards. But an Environment Canada assessment showed Frontier’s emissions per barrel may be more than 20-per-cent higher than other oil sands mines.
Ottawa should insist that Frontier’s environmental performance meet, and ideally exceed, the top performer among existing mines. Teck also needs to demonstrate it can significantly lower Frontier’s emissions over time.
But all of that will only come into play if Frontier is built. That doesn’t look as though it’s happening any time soon. The holdup is economic reality, not regulatory roadblocks. Making that perfectly clear is one more reason the Trudeau government should say yes to the project.