Ottawa is warning Alberta that the province’s rising greenhouse gas emissions will factor into the federal cabinet’s decision on a proposed new mine in the oil patch.
The already contentious decision facing the cabinet on Teck Resources Ltd.'s proposed Frontier mine has been made more complex by protests and rail blockades against a separate gas pipeline that have crippled the country’s economy and sparked a national crisis, according to some Liberals.
There is a “significant risk” that Alberta’s emissions cap will be exceeded by 2030, Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told his provincial counterpart in a letter Wednesday, after a meeting of the Liberal caucus, which is divided over the Frontier mine.
Mr. Wilkinson’s missive was sent in response to one from Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon last week. In it Mr. Wilkinson doubles down on a dispute between the two levels of government over Alberta’s oil sands emissions and its climate change policies. The issue has been pushed to the spotlight as Ottawa weighs the Frontier mine, which a joint federal provincial review panel said could make it more difficult for Canada to meet its emissions targets.
The federal cabinet must decide whether to approve, reject or delay a decision on the proposed oil sands mine by the end of next week. In addition to the federal approval, the mine faces other hurdles to its viability, including low oil prices and lack of pipeline capacity.
The joint panel’s study of the Frontier mine found it is in the public interest. In his letter, Mr. Wilkinson noted that finding was made in the provincial context and Ottawa’s regulatory rules follow a different procedure. He said the federal cabinet is required to make its own evaluation on whether the project is justified given its environmental effects.
If the Frontier mine is approved and constructed, it would emit 4.1 megatonnes of greenhouse gases annually. Those emissions would fall under a provincially legislated cap on oil sands emissions, which Mr. Wilkinson said is already closing in on its limit, before factoring in several other approved but not yet built oil sands projects.
Oil sands growth, either planned or under construction, represents roughly 2.7 million barrels a day, leading to “significant risk that Alberta’s cap on emissions will be exceeded in 2030,” Mr. Wilkinson wrote.
Ottawa says if all currently approved projects progress, emissions would exceed 130 megatonnes. In a brief statement, Jess Sinclair, a spokeswoman for Mr. Nixon, said the province takes “issue with some of the assertions” particularly around how close Alberta is to hitting its cap.
While Alberta passed the emissions limit, it was never brought into force. Mr. Wilkinson repeated his call to regulate the cap in his letter and noted it was promised in conjunction with Ottawa’s approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Mr. Wilkinson’s recent request that Alberta enforce the emissions cap is what prompted Mr. Nixon to accuse Ottawa of “changing the goal posts” for Teck’s approval in his letter sent last week.
Alberta is basing its assessment of oil sands emissions off of 2018 numbers that it says show the oil patch emitted 67.7 megatonnes. In his letter to Mr. Nixon, Mr. Wilkinson said Ottawa estimates emissions will reach 86.5 megatonnes this year.
As opponents and proponents of the project ramp up the pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, so too are members of his own caucus, many of whom told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday they are opposed to the mine. Compounding the pressure on cabinet are the rail blockades in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to a natural-gas pipeline in northern B.C.
“It makes a complex decision more complex," Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal said Wednesday. Mr. Vandal, a Métis, represents a Winnipeg riding.
His comments were echoed by MP Sean Casey, the chair of the party’s Atlantic caucus, who said “it’s impossible to disconnect the two.”
Asked about the interplay between the blockades and the decision on the Frontier oil sands mine, Mr. Wilkinson stressed cabinet’s decision will be made “on the merits of this project.”
None of the more than a dozen Liberal MPs from across Canada who spoke with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday openly defended the project. However, Mr. Casey, who opposes the project, said there is no unanimity in caucus on the issue.
Prior to the release of the letter from Mr. Wilkinson, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said opponents of the Teck Frontier project were detached from reality.
“This project went through eight years of exhaustive regulatory review by a joint federal provincial panel which looked at every potential impact, including health impacts, and determined that it was in the public interest and should proceed,” he said at a news conference to announce a hospital expansion in Calgary.
“They’d like us to shut down the entire Alberta oil and gas industry. Well, guess what: We couldn’t make this announcement today if that happened. We’d have to shut down hospitals if that happened.”
With a report from James Keller in Calgary.