Can a massive new oilsands mine be reconciled with Trudeau's 'net-zero' promise?

Justin Trudeau has chosen to pursue a middle path between polarized opinions on climate change and resource development. But the prime minister also has now set out a destination to which any path must lead: a Canada with net-zero emissions in 2050.

The prime minister's painstaking efforts to chart a middle path on climate are about to be tested again

Opponents of the Teck Frontier mine project say it will damage wetlands and harm Indigenous communities. (Julie Prejet/CBC)

The political complexity of the challenge facing Justin Trudeau as the federal cabinet prepares to make a decision on Teck Frontier — a proposed large new oilsands mine in northern Alberta — is underlined by the categorical statements of the project's loudest proponents and opponents.

"If this project does not proceed, it would be a clear indication that there is no way forward for this country's largest natural resource," Alberta Premier Jason Kenney declared in a speech in Ottawa in December.

A day later, the Canadian environmentalist Tzeporah Berman wrote in The Guardian that "approving Teck Resources' Frontier mine would effectively signal Canada's abandonment of its international climate goals."

In the past, Trudeau has chosen to pursue a middle path between such polarized opinions on climate change and resource development — approving a new pipeline to the West Coast while also implementing a national price on carbon, then buying that pipeline while committing the tax revenue from the project to clean technology.

But Trudeau now has a stated destination for whatever path he chooses: a Canada with net-zero emissions by 2050.

Whatever else Teck Frontier represents, it stands as a starting point for a necessary and overdue conversation about what the next 30 years could, or should, look like.

Map showing the location of the Ronald Lake Bison Range in relation to the Teck Resources Oilsands Frontier mine. (CBC News Graphics)

The Teck Resources Limited Frontier Oil Sands Mine would be located approximately 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alberta and would operate from 2026 to 2066. If completed, the project would employ 7,000 people during construction and 2,500 people to operate the mine, while contributing $70 billion in tax revenue to federal, provincial and municipal governments.

It also would produce 4.1 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually. And the Pembina Institute estimates that, when all activity related to the mine is taken into account, emissions from the project will amount to six megatonnes annually.

Still, a joint review panel found in July 2019 that the project was in the public interest — though that was before Trudeau made a commitment to achieving net-zero by 2050.

While Kenney presents Teck Frontier as a referendum on the future of the oilsands, Teck's own CEO has conceded that the project's fate depends on more than the federal cabinet's decision.

Could Teck make money?

For Teck Frontier to be viable, the price of oil will need to be close to $75 per barrel. The current price for West Texas Intermediate is $52.

If project is approved and does become economically viable, there will still be those emissions to contend with.

Teck Frontier's emissions, on their own, are unlikely to thwart Canada's quest to achieve net-zero in 2050. So it might be equally simplistic to frame the project as a referendum on this country's ability to meet that target.

But four megatonnes is a lot for a single facility — particularly when the goal is to push emissions close enough to nothing to allow Canada to compensate for the remaining emissions with some combination of carbon capture technology and land-use changes (like planting more trees).

"Do we really want to be squandering a limited carbon budget that could be reserved for energy efficient buildings, transportation and other parts of the economy on one project?" said Catherine Abreu, executive director of the Climate Action Network.

One could also ask whether any single project should be asked to bear that much responsibility for a national target.

A difficult moment

For both sides of this debate, Teck Frontier speaks to bigger questions. Albertans are frustrated and worried about what the future holds for their province's primary industry. But if Canada is to contribute meaningfully to the global fight against climate change, it must deal with the emissions from our oil and gas industry — a sector that is projected to account for 199 megatonnes and 34 per cent of Canada's total emissions in 2030.

Last fall's election was defined by those forces — by restive voters on the Prairies who oppose Trudeau's government, and by the two-thirds of voters who cast ballots for parties that promised significant action to combat climate change. Four months after that election is a particularly difficult moment to contemplate approving or rejecting such a project.

If there is a middle path here, it might resemble a proposal made by the Pembina Institute in 2018. In a submission to the review panel, Pembina recommended that the project be required to match "best-in-class" efficiency standards and that it reduce its emissions by half between 2026 and 2050.

Could Teck Frontier be pushed further to achieve something closer to net-zero by 2050?

Approval with conditions?

Amarjeet Sohi, the former federal minister of natural resources, recently suggested that Teck Frontier's approval should be linked to a legislated limit on oilsands emissions and a plan from Alberta to help Canada get to net-zero by 2050.

Trudeau could approve the project, with such conditions or demands, and then let the market decide Teck Frontier's fate.

Despite a great deal of noise over the last four years, the Liberals effectively found a successful middle path on Trans Mountain: a majority of Canadians and British Columbians support the pipeline, according to opinion surveys, and the Liberals were re-elected with a plurality of seats last fall. Walking that middle path on Trans Mountain may have prevented an even deeper schism from emerging.

The 'United We Roll' convoy of semi-trucks prepares to leave Red Deer, Alta. Feb. 14, 2019 - on its way to Ottawa to draw attention to a lack of support for the energy sector. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

But finding a happy medium might be harder now. Environmentalists, in particular, might be less willing to accept any compromise that involves expanding oilsands operations. And Trudeau's minority government is contending with parties on its left that are pushing for more aggressive action to reduce emissions.

Whatever the federal cabinet decides, there is a need now to start talking about what 2050 might look like and how the country might get there. Ideally, that discussion would have started months — even years — before Teck Frontier went to the cabinet for a decision.

Questions about the long-term future of Canada's emissions and Alberta's resource-based economy have loomed in the background of all discussions about climate change and resource development over the last five years. But those questions are now increasingly unavoidable.

Though the goal of net-zero by 2050 was only introduced by Trudeau during the fall campaign, it's not a number picked at random. Net-zero is in line with the aim of limiting further global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and thus minimizing the damage to life on this planet. Sweden, the United Kingdom, France and New Zealand have written a target of net-zero into their domestic laws.

The future of the oil and gas industry, and all those who work in and around it, is key to Canada's shot at net-zero. Outright rejection of Teck Frontier would accelerate the need for answers — particularly regarding the "just transition" the federal government has promised to people whose livelihoods depend on the fossil fuel industries. But any decision will require an explanation.

Federal and provincial politicians have been edging up to these questions about Canada's energy future for years. But a decision on Teck Frontier is an invitation to start explaining how the next 30 years could play out.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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