Teck Frontier oilsands project pits Trudeau’s climate credibility against concerns for Alberta’s economy

Steven Guilbeault was a prominent environmentalist in Quebec before he was elected to Parliament last fall. Now, as a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, he will be at the table as government ministers ponder whether to approve the controversial Teck Frontier oilsands project.

OTTAWA—Like most everyone with a stake in the quagmire of Canadian climate politics, Colleen Thorpe does not know if the Liberal government will approve the Teck Frontier oilsands project.

But she sure is worried it will.

The executive director of Équiterre was among a host of Quebec environmentalists who met Monday with key cabinet ministers to air their thoughts about the massive — and politically contentious — proposed development in northeastern Alberta. Naturally, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was there. But so was Steven Guilbeault, the rookie politician installed as heritage minister after he was elected in Montreal last fall. In his prior life, Guilbeault was one of Quebec’s most prominent green activists, a vocal campaigner in the fight against climate change, who co-founded Thorpe’s organization and worked there until less than two years ago.

Yet despite Guilbeault’s presence, Thorpe left the meeting with concerns. She had the impression that the Liberal cabinet is divided on the project, meaning it could still go either way.

“We’re on high alert,” she told the Star last week. “I think there’s a lot of work to do to get the different cabinet members understanding the full implications of the project.”

Beatrice Allard, a civil law student at the University of Ottawa who volunteers with the youth group ENvironnement JEUnnesse, was also at Monday’s meeting.

“They said they have not reached a consensus in the cabinet,” Allard said. “I think they’re trying to have an open conversation on … the dilemma that the Trudeau administration has to deal with, which is dealing with Alberta’s interests while being able to deliver their environmental promises.”

Aye, there’s the rub. For a government that has argued it can fight climate change and spur economic growth at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a starker example of those priorities diverging in a single decision.

At an estimated cost of almost $21 billion, the 29,000-hectare Frontier project proposed by Vancouver’s Teck Resources is on the cusp of a crucial, perhaps ultimate, hurdle. A joint panel of federal and Alberta regulators recommended its approval last July, and now it is up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet to decide whether it should go ahead.

The joint panel predicted the project would create thousands of jobs and pump $67 billion into federal and provincial coffers over its 41-year lifespan. Allies of Canada’s oil and gas industry — led by federal Conservatives and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — have seized on those figures, arguing the project is a no-brainer and much-need economic boost for a region simmering with resentment over Ottawa’s environmental policies under the Liberal government. Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs warned on social media this week that “a political rejection of Teck Frontier … will be perceived by most Albertans as a final rejection of Alberta by Canada.”

Terry Parker, executive director of the Building Trades of Alberta, an umbrella group representing 60,000 workers in the province, said the project would be a welcome boost to the economy that has slumped in recent years with a persistent drop in oil prices, among other factors.

“This would be roughly 7,000 jobs for Albertans and another 2,500 after the mine is constructed,” Parker said, citing figures from the panel’s report. “It’s essential to Alberta’s economy that this project move forward.”

On the other side of the divide, environmental groups across the country have banded together to press the federal government to reject the project. They point to the panel’s conclusion that it would have “significant adverse effects” on the environment and traditional Indigenous land use. The project would also belch 4.1 megatonnes of greenhouse gas into the air every year, according to the joint panel — a figure that doesn’t include “downstream” emissions from burning the project’s daily output of 260,000 barrels of oil.

“Full rejection is the only thing that is an acceptable, defensible decision if Canada wants to continue to call itself a leader on climate,” said Julia Levin, climate and energy program manager with Environmental Defence, who pressed Wilkinson about the project during the global climate summit in Madrid two months ago.

Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, says his polling shows a partisan “chasm” between Conservative supporters and more left-leaning Canadians on questions of climate change and energy policy.


Electric school busses for kids

Saint-Jérôme manufacturer Lion Electric is providing a cleaner ride to school for students across North America

Over 500,000 school busses are used to transport kids to school across North America every day, performing a vital but oft-overlooked educational task. As these busses age, around 40,000 new and replacement vehicles are purchased by school boards each year.

While the vast majority of these new iconic yellow busses still run on carbon-emitting diesel fuel, a small but growing number are all-electric vehicles. Leading this market is Quebec manufacturer Lion Electric Company, which designs, manufactures and assembles all components out of its Saint-Jérôme headquarters north of Montreal.

Founded in 2008, the company has grown into one of the North American market leaders in the electric school bus industry segment. It also produces other specialized electric vehicles like delivery and garbage trucks.

Lion Electric has now sold around 100 electric school busses to school boards across Canada, as well as an additional 50 in the U.S. In July 2019, the California Energy Commission awarded a new contract to Lion Electric to help fulfil a new $70 million order to replace over 200 diesel school busses across the state.

School busses are uniquely well-suited for electrification, operating on reliable schedules across relatively short distances that allow for sufficient charging. The Lion Electric buses maintain a range of 90 to 150 km, depending on configuration.

The biggest barrier to adoption, for now, remains the larger up-front cost of the vehicles. The vehicles can cost up to three times as much to purchase as traditional diesel busses, dissuading a lot of school boards from making purchases for now. But according to the Quebec environmental organization Equiterre, there are a number of additional benefits of going electric.

The Quebec government already subsidizes diesel fuel for school busses above 60 cents a litre (current prices sit at $1.20). Going electric would eliminate the need for this subsidy. Electric buses are also quieter, reducing noise pollution in residential neighbourhoods. Most importantly, operating Lion’s electric busses costs up to 60% less due to cheaper electricity and reduced maintenance costs.

Equiterre calculated that electrifying 90% of the province’s school bus fleet would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.37 million tonnes a year, create local jobs, reduce healthcare spending by $1 million and reduce annual oil imports by $67 million.

With growing understanding of the benefits of electrification, some provinces and states like California and Quebec are beginning to offer up-front subsidies for electric bus adoption or even setting hard targets for adoption. Reducing perverse subsidies that increase fossil fuel usage (like diesel fuel subsidies) and using their power of procurement are two of the most powerful tools governments have at their disposal. MORE