Last-minute negotiations settle a First Nation's concerns over the Teck Frontier oilsands mine

Alberta and a First Nation in the heart of the oilsands addressed water, habitat and compensation concerns ahead of a cabinet decision on the Teck Frontier oilsands project. However, that deal may not matter after the company signalled late Sunday the project will not go ahead.

Alberta and a First Nation announced deal over the Teck Frontier mine Sunday — but project now in doubt

Teck Mining Company's zinc and lead smelting and refining complex is pictured in Trail, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government has resolved a First Nation's concerns over the Teck Frontier mine, eliminating one obstacle that could have blocked the project's approval.

However, the deal may not matter after the Vancouver-based Teck Resources signalled late Sunday it was no longer planning to proceed with the oilsands project.

The provincial government and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) reached an agreement over the weekend after a bitter public dispute between the two parties. The down-to-the-wire negotiations ended ahead of an expected decision from the Liberal government this week on the fate of the $20.6-billion mega-mine.

"Given the recent discussions with the Alberta government and their fresh and positive approach," Chief Allan Adam said in a news release. "We reconfirm our support of the project and encourage the Canadian government to approve the project without further delay."

Adam said his nation and the Alberta government have agreed on a "comprehensive and meaningful package of action items," but the news release didn't state what those items are.

ACFN had accused the province of Alberta dragging their feet on the Dené nation's concerns over water, bison habitat and the need for financial compensation for treaty rights. The provincial government said that it has been in dialogue with the nation and accused the band's Chief Adam of being primarily concerned with money.

Each accused the other of delays that could block the project.

In July, a federal-provincial environmental panel recommended the approval of the Teck Frontier mine. The mine would disturb 292 square kilometres of pristine wetlands and boreal forest — an area half the size of the city of Edmonton — over its 40-year lifespan, although Vancouver-based Teck Resources would not begin mining the whole area all at once.

Two weeks ago, CBC obtained a letter Adam wrote to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. The letter stated it was unlikely ACFN's concerns would be resolved within the prescribed timelines. This disagreement, a federal government source told CBC then, would weigh on the government's decision to approve the mine.

The end to this public battle gives opponents of Teck Frontier one less argument. Conversely, it arms the project's cheerleaders with the backing to honestly say all 14 Alberta Métis and First Nations in the immediate sphere of the project support it. Another band in the shadow of the project, the Mikisew Cree First Nation, also issued a press release Friday reiterating its support.

The Liberal caucus is divided over the issue.

Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith told CBC Radio's The House Canada would not be able to meet its net-zero emission target by 2050 if Teck Frontier was approved. On that front, it was announced Friday that Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon would enforce a cap on oilsands emissions, which may alleviate concerns over Teck Frontier's greenhouse gas footprint.

Former Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr says the fate of the proposed Teck Frontier oilsands mine will be decided next week, setting the table for another potential showdown over an oil and gas project in Canada. But his Liberal colleague, MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, warned that Canada won't reach its 2050 net-zero emissions target if the project is approved.

Teck has estimated the project would emit about four million tonnes of direct carbon emissions per year. One environmental group, the Oilsands Environmental Coalition (OSEC), estimated that it would be the equivalent of adding 891,000 cars to roadways.

In a statement of his own, Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon celebrated the resolution.

"I am again calling on the federal government to approve the Teck Frontier mine project, given that the major concerns raised by the Joint Review Panel have been addressed," Nixon said.

"The opportunity that this project presents for our Indigenous communities, our province and the thousands of jobs it would create cannot be killed for political reasons. This project has played by the rules. It has followed the process. It's time to get it done."


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca

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