The Teck Resources oil sands mine in Northern Alberta will destroy 292 square kilometres of wetlands, peatlands and natural forest and disrupt the livelihood of several thousand Indigenous peoples.
The project should categorically be rejected.
The Joint Review Panel that evaluated Teck Resources’ proposal identified an alarming array of severe environmental impacts. In their own words, the Panel reported that:
The Frontier project will remove all wetlands from the project development area. There will be a net loss of over 14,000 hectares of wetlands…including the irreversible loss of over 3,000 hectares of peatlands….This is a high-magnitude and irreversible project effect.
The project will remove all old-growth forests within the project disturbance area. There may be a loss of habitat for many species reliant on such forests, including species at risk, for at least 100 years following closure in 2081.
..the project is likely to result in significant adverse effects to bison related to habitat availability and disease transmission. …the panel has also determined that the project …is likely to result in significant adverse effects to Ronald Lake bison.
The project..is likely to result in significant adverse effects for some species of migratory birds, bats and amphibians which are species at risk as well as fisher and Canada lynx.
The project will contribute to a regional loss of upland ecosystems, wetlands, old-growth forests and areas of high species diversity potential, rare plant potential and traditional use potential. While reclamation will mitigate these effects, some residual effects will remain. Some high biodiversity potential areas cannot be reclaimed (peatlands) while others will not become re-established for many years after reclamation and closure (old-growth forests.
The panel concludes that the project is likely to result in a significant adverse effect to biodiversity, primarily as a result of the loss of wetland and old-growth forests. The loss of areas of high species diversity potential, rare plants, and traditional use potential contribute to this effect.
Overall, the project will result in the loss of lands and some resources used for traditional activities, and this will affect indigenous groups and their members within the project area. The mitigation measures proposed are not sufficient to fully mitigate these effects.
Concerning the emission of greenhouse gases, the panel essentially declared that it wasn’t their affair:
Teck does not demonstrate how the Frontier project will achieve best-in-class greenhouse gas intensity. However, there is no specific regulatory requirement to achieve this standard. ..The development of policies and programs to meet Canada’s international commitments and implementation of Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan are beyond the scope of this project review and the authority of the panel.
According to Teck Resources Ltd, the Frontier project is expected to create 7000 jobs during construction and up to 2500 operation jobs during the 41-year life of the mine and is projected to contribute more than $70 billion to federal, provincial and municipal governments. These are significant benefits, but do they compensate for the substantial environmental and socio-economic costs of the project? The Joint Review Panel was confident that the benefits more than outweigh the costs.
The Panel concluded that “although we find that there will be significant adverse project and cumulative effects on certain environmental components and indigenous communities, …we consider these effects to be justified and that the Frontier project is in the public interest.”
Just how the Review Panel came to this conclusion is not explained in the report. It seems that for the members of the Panel, it is self-evident that the expected economic benefits of the project exceed the substantial environmental and social-economic costs of the operation. But these costs are never quantified and moreover exclude the very significant environmental and social costs incurred by the emission of substantial quantities of greenhouse gases.
Whose public interest?
The concept of public interest deserves some serious scrutiny. Although it is recognised that the concept is difficult to define, it should be evident that the public interest cannot be accurately assessed if important effects of the project in question are either underestimated or not taken into account. For instance, in the case of an industry which employs several hundred people but which also causes substantial pollution, it would be ludicrous to assert that it should go ahead simply because it offers employment and government revenues, without taking into account that industry’s impact on the local environment, the health of the members of the local community, and the social costs that the operation of the industry imposes on the regional population. Canada’s laws that protect the environment and regulate businesses have been enacted precisely to prevent this kind of abuse.
In the case of the Teck mine, the local and regional environmental impacts of the project are very substantial—as acknowledged and detailed by the Review Panel. However, the national environmental impacts have been excluded from consideration. This in spite of the fact that a clear majority of Canadians believe that climate change is an immediate and intensifying threat which the federal government should tackle as an urgent priority. The emissions of greenhouse gases from the Teck Frontier mine are substantial and will significantly undermine Canada’s commitment to meeting its obligations under the Paris Agreement. The interest of this broader and much larger national ‘public’ was not taken into account by the procedures followed by the Joint Review Panel.
Consider the source
In their application to construct and operate the mine and the processing plant, Teck Resources claimed that the Frontier project will emit 4.1 million tonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide a year (MtCO2e/yr). Teck asserted that their operations would be best-in-class, but as the Review Panel noted, Teck offered no evidence how this target was to be achieved. Even so, the Review Panel apparently accepted this figure without question.
We can easily calculate that with a projected production of 260,000 barrels a day of bitumen, this level of emissions converts to an emissions intensity factor of 43.2 kgCO2e per barrel of bitumen. This is an impossibly low emissions factor. For comparison, four Athabasca oil sands operations registered in the Oil-Climate Index managed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, shows an average emissions factor of 188 kgCO2e/barrel for upstream and midstream operations. The lowest value is 154 kgCO2e/barrel. If the Frontier mine can meet this level of ‘best-in -class’, (although it doesn’t explain how it will), emissions from the Frontier mine would be about 14.6 MtCO2e/yr: more than three times higher than the figure advanced by Teck Resources in its application to the Alberta Energy Regulator, and roughly equal to the emissions from the city of Toronto.
Alberta’s emissions are already the highest in Canada and increasing year on year. The Frontier mine will only make a bad situation much worse, and almost certainly put Canada’s Paris Agreement targets out of reach—especially when added to the even larger emissions expected from the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline when it operates at its design capacity of 590,000 barrels a day.
Moreover, the claim that the Frontier mine will be ‘carbon neutral’ in 2050 is nonsense. Even if carbon capture and storage technologies are well established, cost-effective, and routinely operated at scale by that time, in oil sands operations they will likely only be effective on large-scale point sources such as natural gas fired power plants. Refinery and upgrading operations will always release fugitive emissions of methane and other toxic chemicals such as volatile organic compounds. Pipelines transporting liquids under pressure will always leak. Furthermore, the loss of 292 km2 of wetlands, peatlands and old-growth forest represents the destruction of an enormous reservoir of carbon which will be released directly into the atmosphere. Once again, Teck Resources’ claims are unreliable and unfounded.
So to recap: Teck Resources has hugely understated its greenhouse gas emissions, and spun a nonsense tale about becoming carbon neutral by 2050; while the Joint Review Panel has claimed that this is none of their business, and declared that the public interest is defined as anything that makes money for the government of Alberta, never mind how much of the environment is destroyed and how many Indigenous peoples lose their livelihoods.
What’s in the public interest is to firmly reject the Teck Resources proposal.