Image: Jason Woodhead/Flickr

The feds were preparing to decide by the end of February 2020 whether the Teck Resources Frontier project should go ahead in northern Alberta. This was to be the largest oil sands project yet. The Liberals clearly felt caught between a rock and a hard place, as when they purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline. But much has changed; Canadians are steadily more aware of the climate emergency.

Premier Jason Kenney claimed Frontier would be a “litmus test for national unity.” 

Meanwhile, an emerging majority from coast to coast to coast are becoming more unified over the climate emergency, and worry that Canada won’t meet its Paris targets. Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason spoke for many when he wrote “It’s no longer Alberta’s God-given right to pollute … “

Then, on February 23, surprising those on both sides of the controversy, Teck CEO Don Lindsay wrote his company’s decision to “formally withdraw” its massive project. He candidly stated, “a framework … that reconciles resources development and climate change … does not yet exist here today …” He continued, “Frontier … has surfaced a broader debate over climate change and Canada’s role in addressing it. It is our hope that withdrawing … will allow Canadians to shift to the larger and more positive discussions about a path forward.”

Perhaps most surprising, he proclaimed “there is an urgent need to reduce global carbon emissions.” He went on, “We support strong actions to enable the transition to a low carbon future,” adding, “We are also strong supporters of Canada’s action on carbon pricing and other climate policies such as legislated caps for oil sands emissions.”

In the aftermath of this bombshell, Premier Kenney clung to his old script, blaming Justin Trudeau for everything that undermines his longed-for petro state. Did Kenney even read Lindsay’s letter? Or would he prefer to dismiss the reporting of the actual content as “fake news”?

Kenney even tried to blame the Wet’suwet’en land rights blockades, and now wants to pass legislation to more effectively criminalize climate and Indigenous protests. Meanwhile, Lindsay clearly stated Teck was “not merely shying away from controversy. The nature of our business dictates that a vocal minority will almost inevitably oppose specific developments. We are prepared to face that sort of opposition.”

Alberta’s emissions unacceptable

With or without Premier Kenney, we need to have what Lindsay called “a larger and more positive discussion about the path forward.” And there is vital background, which the mainstream media and most political decision-makers have ignored for much too long.

If Alberta separated, it would have the highest per capita emissions of any country. According to Environmental Defence, emissions from oil sands projects grew from 71 mega tonnes (MT) a year in 2015 to 81 in 2017; over 10 per cent of Canada’s total. And these figures may be 30 per cent below actual emissions. In 2017, the Canadian Energy Research Institute predicted that, by 2026, existing projects would exceed the 100 MT cap that the Liberals negotiated with the previous Alberta NDP government.

By 2017 the oil sands were already extracting 2.8 million barrels of bitumen per day and this was projected to reach four million barrels by 2030. By then emissions could reach 110 MT. Lindsay gave his support for “legislated caps for oil sands emissions.” Even without Frontier going ahead, staying under the 100 MT cap, let alone achieving net zero emissions by 2050, is difficult if not impossible to imagine.

Meanwhile, Canada’s overall emissions remain very high; our 2017 per capita footprint was 19 tonnes, just behind Australia’s 22 tonnes, which topped the G20. Oil and gas emissions are up 84 per cent since the 1990s, to 195 MT, over one-quarter of Canada’s total. And by 2018, 64 per cent of Canada’s oil production came from Alberta’s oil sands.

Most significant, by 2017 emissions from the main oil extractors, Alberta and Saskatchewan, totalled 351 MT; nearly equal to the rest of Canada, where emissions fell to 365 MT, from 431 in 2005. Plainly put, Alberta and Saskatchewan’s growing emissions have been nullifying successes in reducing emissions elsewhere in our country. My home province Saskatchewan now emits as much carbon as the whole province of Quebec.

Exported emissions ignored

Teck has said that Frontier would have created another 4.1 MT yearly over 41 years of extraction; others calculated 6 MT. Either way, this ignores the massive “downstream” emissions from refining and end-use combustion.

Frontier would have exported 260,000 barrels of oil daily. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate of “0.43 metric tons CO2/barrel” of crude oil means overall global emissions from Frontier would be more like 40 MT annually, 10 times what Teck and Alberta have claimed.

Under the Paris agreement, countries account for emissions within borders. However, it is total global emissions that are fuelling global warming and more extreme weather events, everywhere. Every country must work to lower total global emissions or we will all face the consequences. This includes Canada and especially Alberta. While Lindsay rightly says that there is “an urgent need to reduce global emissions,” the global emissions from the Frontier project were always being ignored.

Precarious all along

The Frontier project was always precarious. The writing was on the wall when Teck’s profits from its coal mining operations, mainly exports to China, plummeted and its share price dropped from $26 to $11 in the last year. In his withdrawal letter, Lindsay acknowledged that “global markets are changing rapidly.” Teck would have required $20 billion to proceed and no one was stepping up. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi had said that a red light stopping Frontier would make investors question whether Canada is a good place to spend money. Like all oil sands cheerleaders, he chose to ignore accelerating international divestment in fossil fuels; a dozen oil companies have left Alberta since 2015. Investors should also be very nervous about Alberta’s $100-billion liability for abandoned, “orphan” wells.

To have proceeded, Frontier would have required that the expanded TMX be fully operational; however, the price tag for this has gone up 70 per cent, to $12.6 billion. With initial acquisition costs, the total cost to the public is more than $16 billion. If Canada is to truly lower its high emissions, this kind of public investment should be going towards building the low-carbon green economy.

Frontier would have also required US$75 dollar a barrel oil, as a break-even price. The profitability of the project likely required US$100 a barrel, which is far-fetched in the emerging energy market. The price of oil just fell below US$50, mostly due to the slowdown of the global economy from COVID-19. And global warming will continue to bring new global disease pathways that will challenge economic growth and are ignored at our collective peril.

There has been a lot of fanfare about job creation. While the 2,500 permanent jobs projected from the Frontier project were seductive, each job required hundreds of millions in capital. “Jobs at any cost” won’t and can’t move us towards a sustainable future. 

An environmental victory

The collapse of the Frontier project is a major environmental victory. The Frontier mine would have been near UNESCO’s World Heritage Wood Buffalo National Park. Ecological degradation of the staggering 24,000 hectares (292 square kilometres) that would have been impacted, should have been enough to stop the project. Frontier would have destroyed 2,600 hectares of old growth forest and an astonishing 14,000 hectares of wetlands. Protecting wetlands everywhere is a must in any effective climate strategy.

It is unfathomable how the Alberta-Canada panel could admit significant and permanent impacts in such a “high species diversity” area and still say the mine is in the “public interest.” It was a cop-out to admit that Frontier “may make it more difficult to achieve Canada’s targets” and then say climate targets were beyond the “scope” and “authority” of the panel. Teck Resources has been more honest about this fatal flaw than the environmental regulators.

In spite of all this, Premier Kenney still wants to make this about appeasing Western alienation. This, however, is a politically charged distraction from Alberta’s unacceptably high and growing emissions. Kenney initially blamed the crisis in Alberta’s oil-dependent economy on the lack of pipelines. Trans Mountain stands ready to triple its capacity. Line 3 and Keystone may soon be operational. And still Teck Resources has had to withdraw its Frontier project.

Oil sands proponents will be looking for new scapegoats. Conservative party fossil fuel advocates want to make this controversy about “law and order” and to use the term “rule of law” without acknowledging Canada’s constitutional and international legal obligations to respect Indigenous land rights. This recognition has to be front and centre in any framework that can successfully address the challenges that the climate crisis brings to the resource economy. The Liberals need to quickly initiate a process that supports Indigenous peoples moving toward post-colonial governance.

Some also try to make the expansion of the oil sands a litmus test for Reconciliation, and a lot is being made of Indigenous support for the Frontier project. It is highly unlikely that this involved free, prior and informed consent. Anyway, it is time we stopped stereotyping. Support for toxic resource extraction is always tied to perceived, short-term local benefits, rather than long-term global and local impacts. Yet, if we are to “reduce global carbon emissions,” as Lindsay succinctly puts it, we must accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels, while ensuring a just transition for those who have become dependent on this unsustainable energy sector.

Climate denial and distraction are in no one’s interest. Yet, there is rarely any “good news” about the climate emergency. The International Energy Agency reported that global emissions didn’t rise in 2019, though they stayed at the totally unacceptable level of 33 giga tonnes. We are positioned to start lowering emissions by seven per cent a year this decade, to avert catastrophic tipping points. In this global context, members of the federal cabinet should have known what was the right thing to do. Their resolve, however, was never tested because Teck Resources beat them to the punch.

Premier Kenney clearly felt the punch, but prefers to escalate his rehearsed rhetoric. And, looking south of the border, we know the dangers of this. However, Alberta’s hot political air is not as dangerous to our grandchildren as a steadily heating planet.

Activist-author Jim Harding is a retired professor of environmental and justice studies and a founding director of the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association (QVEA.CA). He has written several books including Canada’s Deadly Secret and After Iraq.

Image: Jason Woodhead/Flickr