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Oilsands mine in public interest despite 'significant adverse' effects, panel says

A federal-provincial panel says a proposed northeastern Alberta oilsands mine would be in the public interest, even though it would be likely to significantly harm the environment and Indigenous people.
The Mikisew Cree First Nation signed a confidential agreement last fall with developer Teck Resources Ltd. (Jeff McIntosh/CP) (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

A federal-provincial panel says a proposed northeastern Alberta oilsands mine would be in the public interest, even though it would be likely to significantly harm the environment and Indigenous people.

Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. aims to build the $20.6-billion Frontier mine near Wood Buffalo National Park in two phases.

Its total capacity would be 260,000 barrels of oil a day and Teck has said it aims to start producing oil in 2026.

The panel's report includes several dozen recommended conditions for Teck and the federal and provincial governments. 

They include mitigating harm to wildlife, monitoring pollutants and taking feeback from nearby First Nations into account.

The federal cabinet has until the end of February to make a decision.

"While the panel has concluded that the project is in the public interest, project and cumulative effects to key environmental parameters and on the asserted rights, use of lands and resources for traditional purposes, and culture of Indigenous communities have weighed heavily in the panel's assessment," said the report.

Billions in taxes

It said the project would likely result in significant adverse effects to wetlands, old-growth forests and biodiversity, as well as to Indigenous people in the area.

"The proposed mitigation measures have not been proven to be effective or to fully mitigate project effects on the environment or on Indigenous rights, use of lands and resources, and culture."

But the panel also said that over the project's projected lifespan of 41 years, the federal government could expect to reap $12 billion in taxes and Alberta could rake in $55 billion, with another $3.5 billion in municipal property taxes.

Given the mine's long life, environmentalists have raised concerns about who would pick up the tab for the eventual cleanup in the event Teck couldn't pay for it.

To that end, the panel recommended Alberta complete its review of a mine financial security program to ensure taxpayers wouldn't be left on the hook.

Environmental groups have also questioned how allowing the mine would square with Canada and Alberta's plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Teck estimates the mine will emit 4.1 megatonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Oilsands megaprojects have fallen by the wayside in recent years as the industry deals with low oil prices, high costs and uncertain prospects of new export pipelines.

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