Frontier mine decision make-or-break moment for Canada’s natural resource sector

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, February 12, 2020
Frontier mine decision make-or-break moment for Canada’s natural resource sector

On Monday, amid mounting pressure from Alberta and other stakeholders, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the Trudeau cabinet was still engaged in a “robust” discussion about the Frontier mine, a $20 billion Alberta oilsands proposal by Teck Resources Limited, a natural resource company headquartered in Vancouver. Morneau also refused to say when the decision (originally scheduled for some time in February) would be announced, fuelling speculation of an extended deadline.

Whenever the decision comes down, it’s hard to overstate its impact. If Ottawa rejects the project, it will send a clear signal to the international and domestic investment community that Canada is closed for business, which will have a definite impact on jobs, revenue and prosperity particularly in Alberta. An approval will prove that this federal government has the ability to balance economic and environmental concerns.

Canada is increasingly seen as a place where business can’t get done. Consider the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, first approved in 2016 after a five-year process that included environmental assessments and Indigenous consultations. The project only recently started due to ongoing political opposition and regulatory impediments. In other words, it took almost nine years to start a project that simply expands an existing pipeline.

Moreover, in 2016 the federal government scuttled the previously-approved $7.9 billion Northern Gateway pipeline and imposed new regulatory burdens on the Energy East pipeline project including consideration of “downstream emissions” (emissions generated by consumers), which helped prompt TransCanada to cancel the project.

The result? Waning investor confidence. A recent survey of energy executives found that, when evaluating Alberta, Canada’s major energy-producing province, 73 per cent of respondents cited the high cost of regulatory compliance as a deterrent to investment in 2018 compared to only 32 per cent in 2013. Consequently, between 2014 and 2018 (the latest year of available data), investment in Canada’s natural resource sector (broadly defined) declined by 43 per cent.

For the Frontier mine, Teck spent 10 years securing the necessary approvals (with conditions) from provincial and federal regulators and making changes to the project to appease a host of groups including various Indigenous communities. The only remaining step is for Ottawa to accept and approve the regulators’ findings and greenlight the project.

Put simply, this is a make-or-break moment for the independence of the country’s regulatory system, the federal government and Canada’s international perception as a place to do business and create prosperity. Rejecting the project—again, after it received approvals from government regulators—would not only signal an anti-resource mindset in Ottawa but reinforce the politicization of the regulatory process.

Ironically, rejecting the Teck project could also hurt the environment. As part of the approval process, Teck has pledged to use leading technologies to ensure per-barrel carbon emissions are below those of the average crude oil refined in North America. Since global demand for oil is rising, scuttling the Teck project would likely result in other oil suppliers, who likely produce more greenhouse gas emissions, expanding to meet demand.

The Teck Frontier mine decision will be defining moment for our natural resource sector. An approval will send a positive signal to investors about the independent nature of our regulatory approval process and the future of natural resource development in Canada. A rejection will produce serious and long-lasting consequences for Canada’s natural resource sector and the Canadians who rely on it.

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