Canadians won’t “tolerate too much more large activity in the oilsands,” and after the Trans Mountain controversy, it may be a bridge too far for the Liberal government to approve the Teck Resources Frontier mine, Independent Sen. Mary Coyle says.
Coyle, who was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017 and represents Nova Scotia in the Upper Chamber, was reflecting on the “hard choices” she said Ottawa will have to make to meet its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. She wants to see the Senate launch an inquiry into the climate pathways required to achieve this goal.
Her comments come the same week a new report from the Pembina Institute revealed Alberta’s energy regulator has already approved projects that would, if built, blow past the province’s legislated 100-megatonne cap on carbon pollution.
A decision on whether to approve the mine is expected in the coming weeks, but this week, Ottawa formally asked Alberta to enforce the cap, leading the provincial government to publicly question whether such enforcement was being tied to Frontier’s approval.
‘I think I know where it’s going to go’
While Coyle said she was “not taking a position publicly” herself on whether Trudeau’s cabinet should approve the $20-billion Frontier project — which would produce four megatonnes of carbon pollution per year for 40 years, a figure that does not include the emissions generated when the oil it produces is burned — she said the way Canadians voted in the last election could hint at the outcome.
“This is a tough one for the government to make. I think I know where it’s going to go. We saw Alberta drawing a line in the sand with the (Trans Mountain) pipeline. Now there’s another line in the sand. And you can’t keep going with those lines in the sand,” she told National Observer during an interview in her office on Parliament Hill.
“I think, I believe, that the Canadian population, the way they voted in the last election, aren’t going to tolerate too much more large activity in the oilsands of Canada. That’s my belief. I believe that the government lost support because of TMX, and they lost support from various people on the spectrum over TMX. So I think this will be a very difficult one for them to make.”
HuffPost reported earlier this month that many Liberals have acknowledged that, during the federal election campaign when they tried to talk up their environmental initiatives to voters, they were met with negative comments about Trudeau’s decision to spend billions of dollars purchasing the Trans Mountain pipeline system to make sure the expansion project gets built.
A joint review panel that looked at the Frontier project said it was in the public interest — but was “likely to result in significant adverse environmental effects” to wetlands, old-growth forests, species at risk, a regional bison herd and biodiversity. It also said it would adversely affect the rights, use of land and resources and culture of Indigenous groups.
"The Canadian population, the way they voted in the last election, aren’t going to tolerate too much more large activity in the oilsands of Canada," says @SenCoyle
Supporters, however, point to the roughly 7,000 construction jobs and 2,500 operation jobs, as well as the $70 billion in taxes and royalties it is expected to generate. Sen. Doug Black, an elected senator who represents Alberta, spoke in favour of the mine on the Senate floor on Feb. 19. “For Albertans, who seek a meaningful working relationship with Ottawa on the environment and the economy, this decision is the canary in the coal mine,” Black said, adding he was hoping for a positive decision.
Approved projects hit 147 megatonnes: Pembina
This week, federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson formally asked Alberta, where the mine would be based, to enforce its legislated 100-megatonne cap on carbon pollution. Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon said the request meant Ottawa was “changing the goalposts” on Frontier’s approval by raising the issue of the cap so late in the decision-making process. Wilkinson, however, said the government had always wanted the cap to be enforced.
The legislation for the pollution cap, the Oil Sands Emissions Limit Act, was brought in during the previous NDP government of Rachel Notley in 2016. The following year, a provincial advisory panel came up with a proposed mechanism to enforce the cap through regulations, but those were never put in place — instead, the province kept consulting.
Alberta has never hit 100 megatonnes of pollution, and in years past, it wasn’t expected to do so for some time, so the issue has previously been seen as a long-term one. In December, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney signalled he didn’t have plans to scrap Notley’s cap, saying instead he was “prepared to be pragmatic” on the issue.
A report issued Wednesday by the Pembina Institute says, as of December 2019, the Alberta Energy Regulator “has approved projects with cumulative emissions totalling 147 megatonnes” of carbon dioxide equivalent, presuming all projects use current production techniques. If projects currently seeking approval are included, the figure rises to 173 megatonnes.
“Given that the legislation was never implemented through regulation, and Canada's climate targets call for decarbonization of the oilsands industry, the conversation needs to move beyond a ceiling for emissions of 100 Mt,” the report reads.
Teck Resources and the offices of Nixon and Wilkinson did not return requests for comment before publication.
Coyle wants Senate inquiry into emissions
Coyle introduced the concept of a Senate inquiry on carbon emissions in a speech on Feb. 6. It is intended to raise awareness of “finding the right pathways and actions for Canada and Canadians to meet our net-zero carbon emissions targets,” in order to “slow, arrest and reverse human-caused climate change to ensure a healthy planet, society, economy and democracy.”
She told National Observer that, following the Senate’s contentious debates over environmental bills C-48 and C-69 last year, she thought the Upper Chamber needed to dig into the issue of climate change more broadly.
“I think we are a perfect place to really spark a unique dialogue on what Canada needs to do,” Coyle said. “It’s clear we need to get to our net-zero carbon emissions targets. There’s no question about that, I don’t think anybody questions that anymore — or very few people question that anymore. It’s how you get there.”
Coyle lamented the “rancour in the Canadian population, and the division” over tackling climate change in Canada, and said many senators have a unique position within this conversation, as they don’t have to engage in partisan behaviour to get elected, and don’t need to toe the party line. She said there were serious questions over what kind of transition Alberta workers will have to make in the shift to a low-carbon economy, and that these questions shouldn’t be viewed strictly through a partisan lens.
“We have to care about the workers in Alberta, who are going to have a very serious transition. I come from Nova Scotia — Atlantic Canada, look at what the cod moratorium did to Newfoundland. Look at Cape Breton with steel and coal. There have been serious adjustments in many parts of the country over the decades; this is a huge one,” Coyle said.
“It is a discussion about that — but as you know ... the finance sector is already moving,” Coyle said. The insurance industry is taking stock of the situation as well, she noted.
“There are a whole variety of interests ... the oil and gas sector is of course very central to the conversation in Canada. There are a lot of reasons, and there are some hard choices to be made.”