A massive environmental disaster has been averted in Canada. The interrelated combination of protest and economics have killed the Frontier tar sands mine. Citing the ongoing debate over climate policy in Canada, Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd., has withdrawn its application to build a massive tar sands project in northern Alberta. The result is that hundreds of square kilometers of pristine land will not be destroyed and millions of tons of carbon will be left in the ground.
The $20.6-billion Frontier mine, was to be located 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. It was the largest tarsands mine ever proposed. A July 2019, joint federal-provincial review panel concluded that the mine would adversely impact 292 square kilometres of wetlands and boreal forest. It also would have been a climate catastrophe producing 260,000-barrels-per-day and generating 160 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over its 40 year lifespan.
This decision is a demonstration of the power of protest. Petitions and actions across the country helped Teck to come to the conclusion that public opinion is against them. Canadians led by Indigenous communities and young people are saying no to fossil fuel developments. This is the same kind of people powered protest that killed the Energy East Pipeline.
“Unfortunately, the growing debate around this issue has placed Frontier and our company squarely at the nexus of much broader issues that need to be resolved. Teck CEO and president Don Lindsay said in a letter to the minister. “In that context, it is now evident that there is no constructive path forward for the project.”
Although Lindsay portrays this as a Canadian issue, is is actually part of a global trend. Fossil fuels are increasingly being shunned not just by Canadians but by people, investors, insurers and banks around the world. Rather than political considerations market forces are a major part of the reason why fossil fuel industry is dying.
Alberta’s Conservative Premiere Jason Kenney blames Ottawa and warns about the erosion of national unity as part of a thinly veiled reference to western
separatism. Kenney opposes climate action and he has been unyielding in his support for the fossil fuels. Kenney killed the climate action of his predecessor and successfully challenged the federal government’s authority to impose a national carbon tax. He has refused to set specific emissions reductions targets, and is not enforcing the province’s cap on emissions from the tar sands.
Kenney’s ire may be misplaced as the issue may have more to do with the fact that he is increasingly at odds with public sentiment across the country. A Global News poll at the end of last year revealed that 71 per cent of Canadians believe the country needs to take the lead globally on the fight against climate change and 76 believe the country needs to be doing more on the issue as a whole.
There is also the fact that the economics of the Frontier project don’t add up. In July 2019, a joint federal-provincial review panel recommended the mine be approved, saying the economic benefits outweighed what it described as significant adverse environmental impacts. However, a January report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis made the case that Teck’s application showed a “reckless disregard for the facts regarding oil prices in Canada.” To be profitable the price of oil has to climb to almost $100 a barrel. At the current price of $60 a barrel the economic merits of this project are highly questionable.
Keith Stewart, senior energy analyst with Greenpeace Canada, suggested the project was doomed from the start. “This project never made economic sense; it didn’t make climate sense; it wasn’t really going to happen,” Stewart told CBC News. “This was a project that might have made sense 10 years ago. It certainly doesn’t today,” he said.
Canadians have been obsessed with fossil fuels for decades but the tides are turning. The tar sands are a threat to both our climate and biodiversity. The ruling Canadian government has to make a choice and if they want to be on the right side of history, the choice is clear. Both politically and morally they have to come to terms with the fact that their desire to make Canada a climate leader is fundamental incompatible with expanding fossil fuel extraction. Canadian dualism is doomed and now is the time for the federal government to show leadership and pivot away from dirty energy. This is a turning point for Canada, or at least it could be.