Ottawa and Alberta's delicate dance as Teck Frontier mine decision rears its head

After having to spend more money than estimated to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the next test of Ottawa’s relationship with Alberta is just around the corner.

Newsletter: The next test of Ottawa’s relationship with Alberta is just around the corner

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I had to listen to it twice before I trusted my own ears. 

"Look, I think to Prime Minister Trudeau's credit, I think he understands that there is a very serious challenge here … we've entered into, I think, a respectful dialogue."

That is a direct quote from none other than Alberta premier Jason Kenney. Yes, the same Jason Kenney who once said Justin Trudeau has the "political depth of a finger bowl." You'd forgive me if I had to do a double, triple and quadruple take.

But it happened — it really happened. 

And it wasn't just Kenney  —  Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe also piled on the praise. "It seems to be an attitude change, it really does" he said when asked about his relationship with Ottawa. "The outreach also seems to be strong."

Both men were speaking on a panel at the Wilson Centre in Washington when they made the comments on Friday. 

It's a major shift in tone. Remember right after the federal election in October? With the Liberals shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the premiers issued dire warnings to Ottawa that unity of the country was at risk if nothing was done to address the anger of people in those provinces. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney meets with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland in Calgary on Jan. 7, 2020. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

In came newly-named Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who the prime minister tasked with the super easy endeavour of repairing national unity. 

Sources close to both Kenney and Moe tell me Freeland's appointment was a bit of a game changer, and the relationship between her and both men is very good.

Fast forward to late last week when the federal government was forced to put its money where its mouth is. Turns out, the cost of building the TMX pipeline has soared from an original estimate of $7.4 billion, to $12.6 billion. The hope, according to two government sources, is that coughing up that much cash will take the sting out of accusations Liberals face suggesting they don't do enough to help the struggling resource sector, and by extension, people in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Bill Morneau himself will be in Calgary Monday to deliver that message. 

But it probably won't resonate. Buying the pipeline in the first place didn't exactly endear Trudeau to Albertans, spending more to get it built likely won't either. And now there's a new litmus test to prove Ottawa's love — the Teck Frontier mine project in northeastern Alberta. 

Cabinet has until the end of the month to make a decision on the mine, which has already been declared in the public interest by a joint review panel. If they don't approve it, Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs said it "will be perceived as a final rejection of Alberta by Canada."

Watch Finance Minister Bill Morneau discuss the ballooning cost of the Trans Mountain expansion and the decision to be made on the Teck Frontier mine. 

Bill Morneau on the soaring cost of the Trans Mountain expansion

2 years ago
Finance Minister Bill Morneau discusses the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the ballooning cost to complete the project. 11:27

Them's fightin' words. It appears members of the Liberal caucus — and even cabinet — are up for that fight. As first reported by HuffPost, a lot of MPs told the prime minister last week in caucus that they don't want cabinet to give the mine the green light. When operational, it would emit 4.1 megatonnes of carbon a year and make it harder for Canada to hit its climate targets and MPs are not cool with that.

Teck Resources Ltd. promised last week to aim to achieve 'net zero' greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 did little to calm that opposition.

There is a deal on the table, as I outlined last week. First floated by former natural resources minister Amarjeet Sohi; in exchange for approval, cabinet would stipulate Alberta legislate a pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

It looked like a possible deal last week, but opposition among those rank-and-file Liberal MPs appears to have been underestimated. As Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said on the show last week: "It's gonna be harder than I thought." 

To sum it up, after forking over billions more for TMX, there will be little gratitude; the next test of Ottawa's love is right around the corner. The change in tone between governments likely has an expiry date — depending on how things go at the end of the month. And the delicate dance — continues. 

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This is just one part of the Minority Report newsletter. In this week's issue, Éric Grenier looks at how a strong showing in Atlantic Canada could change the electoral math for Conservatives at the next election. Plus, five things you may not have known about Bloc Québécois MP Kristina Michaud. You can read all of that by clicking here, or sign up for the newsletter here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

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