Minister 'wrestling' with how Frontier oilsands mine would fit into climate commitments

The federal environment minister says he's spoken with his Alberta counterpart about how Canada's climate commitments could weigh into his decision about a large proposed oilsands mine.

Teck's proposed $20B mine would produce 260,000 barrels of oil per day

A mining shovel fills a haul vehicle at the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine near Fort McMurray, Alta., Wednesday, July 9, 2008. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The federal environment minister, who is visiting Calgary this week, says he has spoken with his Alberta counterpart about how Canada's climate commitments could weigh into his decision about a large proposed oilsands mine.

Alberta's United Conservative government has urged Ottawa for a speedy approval of the Teck Resources $20.6-billion Frontier project near Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta.

A federal-provincial review this summer determined Frontier would be in the public interest, even though it would be likely to harm the environment and Indigenous people.

Jonathan Wilkinson says if he agrees there would be significant adverse impacts, he will refer the matter to cabinet to make a decision by the end of February.

Teck has projected the mine will emit 4.1 megatonnes of carbon dioxide a year, but some environmental groups say that estimate is too low.

Wilkinson says Ottawa must assess how Frontier fits into the government's promise to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

"That is something that we will have to be discussing and wrestling with as we make a decision one way or the other," Wilkinson said Tuesday after announcing up to $8.5 million in energy efficiency funding for the University of Calgary.

"That is a target that is not informed by politics. It's informed by science."

Pathways to net zero

Wilkinson says he has had that conversation with Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon.

The two met before climate talks in Madrid this month, Wilkinson said, and told the CBC that they met again during his visit to Alberta on Tuesday.

"I certainly listened to what Minister Nixon had to say in terms of the perspective of the Alberta government on this project," Wilkinson told Calgary Eyeopener guest host Rob Brown on Wednesday. 

Wilkinson says he is also taking meetings with "a number" of Calgary oil and gas company CEOs, as well as tech companies. An ongoing topic of discussion, he says, is working collaboratively to reach the federal government's net-zero target.

"There are many pathways to get to net zero," Wilkinson said. "I've certainly been in Calgary talking to a lot of folks in the oil-gas space about those pathways, and how we can work together to define them."

With the Frontier oilsands mine projected to produce up to 260,000 barrels of oil a day, Wilkinson acknowledges reconciling its production rate with the government's net-zero target might present a challenge.

"That would have to be addressed in the context of the environmental impact if, in fact, the project is to proceed," Wilkinson said.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener