Oilsands mine in public interest despite ‘significant adverse’ effects, panel finds

Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. aims to build the Frontier mine near Wood Buffalo National Park

A federal-provincial panel says a proposed northeastern Alberta oilsands mine would be in the public interest, even though it would likely significantly harm the environment and Indigenous people.

Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. aims to build the $20.6-billion Frontier mine near Wood Buffalo National Park in two phases.

Its total capacity would be 260,000 barrels of oil a day. More than 290 square kilometres of land would be disturbed.

Teck has said it aims to start producing oil in 2026, with the mine lasting for more than four decades.

“While the panel has concluded that the project is in the public interest, project and cumulative effects to key environmental parameters and on the asserted rights, use of lands and resources for traditional purposes, and culture of Indigenous communities have weighed heavily in the panel’s assessment,” said the report released Thursday.

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It said the project would likely result in significant adverse effects to wetlands, old-growth forests and biodiversity, as well as to Indigenous people in the area.

“The proposed mitigation measures have not been proven to be effective or to fully mitigate project effects on the environment or on Indigenous rights, use of lands and resources, and culture.”

The panel’s report includes several dozen recommended conditions for Teck and the federal and provincial governments.

They include mitigating harm to wildlife, monitoring pollutants and taking feedback from nearby First Nations into account.

But the panel also said there are economic benefits. Over the project’s expected lifespan, the federal government could expect to reap $12 billion in taxes and Alberta could rake in $55 billion, with another $3.5 billion in municipal property taxes, it said.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is to determine if the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects when mitigation measures are taken into account. If she decides that’s the case, it’s up to the federal cabinet to decide whether those effects are justified in the circumstances. Ottawa’s decision is due in February.

Environmental groups have questioned how allowing the mine would square with Canada and Alberta’s plans to meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets.

“A project like this can lock in emissions for generations and we think it’s really important that any conditions … ensure that those emissions will go on a downward trajectory and not hold us up from our own climate goals,” said Nikki Way, a senior analyst at the Pembina Institute environmental think-tank.

Teck projects the mine will emit 4.1 megatonnes of carbon dioxide a year, but Way says Teck is underestimating that number by two megatonnes.

Given the mine’s long life, she said she’s also concerned about who would pick up the tab for the eventual cleanup in the event Teck couldn’t pay for it.

To that end, the panel recommended Alberta complete its review of a mine financial security program, which collects a damage deposit of sorts from operators over time to ensure taxpayers won’t be left on the hook.

That recommendation doesn’t go far enough to ensuring Teck is held to the right standard, said Way.

“We think it’s a reasonable ask and we were really disappointed not to see it.”

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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