Laurentian Canada Determined to Kill Oil Sands Development

Commentary, Energy, Marco Navarro-Genie

As predicted weeks ago, Albertans did not need to hold their breath for Ottawa’s approval of the Frontier oil sands mine.

Reports of massive opposition within the Liberal Party caucus and rumours of an appeasing “economic aid” package for the province were strong indicators that the federal cabinet had no intentions to approve the Frontier mine for northern Alberta later this month.

Frontier represented hope for Alberta. It promised $20 billion in investment, and to generate four decades of operation and $70 billion in taxes for all levels of government. Some 2500 permanent jobs would have remained from the 7000 sparked during the construction phase. Poof just like that it’s all gone!

The project had been through all the hoops and complied with all the requirements under law and regulation. It enjoyed the endorsement of all 14 adjacent Indigenous communities.

But the project chafes against those wishing for Alberta to leave its oil in the ground, to phase out the oil sands as the Prime Minister supports, and to transform Canada into the world’s eco-Nirvana at the expense of Alberta. There are strong ideological voices inside the Liberal, Bloc and New Democratic parties. These are the same folks to whom the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister regularly tweet to say the Canadian economy is doing wonderfully well.

The real culprit, however, is the Laurentian regime; that is, the current structures of power that dominate Canada. Without this arrangement, the imposition of Laurentian dominance over Alberta’s natural resources would not be possible.

The present House of Commons has 338 Members, from which only 34 represent Albertans. Contrast that number with 199 MPs from the Laurentian provinces, Quebec and Ontario. Regardless of who may be in power, Laurentians have nearly 7 times more voices in Parliament than Albertans do. This will not change.

Of course, not all Laurentian MPs are doomsday environmentalists, but they don’t have to be. If only a third of them were so, it would make them twice as numerous as all Alberta MPs –and this will not change any time soon. But it gets worse. The MPs who have stalled long enough to decide the Teck’s Frontier project fate are in the federal cabinet, with no Albertan among them.

Ottawa has tried to extort political gain from Alberta in exchange for approval, pushing more job-killing policies and punishing the province for “fighting [the] federal government on the issue of the pricing of pollution,” as federal Environment and Climate Change Minister, expressed it. They know Edmonton won’t surrender, thus setting things up to blame Alberta for the rejection, exactly as the Finance Minister now blames Kinder Morgan for “walking away” from TMX.

Cabinet only had only one job to do, one decision: approve, reject, or delay the project. They couldn’t even do that.

While approval wasn’t really an option for this government, as it would cost them crucial seats in Laurentian urban centres such as Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, as well as in Atlantic Canada and BC’s Lower Mainland. Compared to approving the project they would only have negligible gains in Alberta.

So, a new version of “Screw the West but take the rest” will do. The minority government cannot survive without other Eco-nirvana coalition parties, the Bloc, and the NDP.

The Prime Minister wants to avoid the collapse of his minority. And he needs to safeguard, for his party and for himself, the chance of regaining majority power in a not-too-distant future, for which he must avoid the wrath of Laurentian eco-doomster voters.

However, the typical seat-computation needs mitigation by the real and present danger of further fuelling Alberta independence sentiments. The effect of the cancelling of Teck’s Frontier mine outright is worse for Western Canada than passing over Winnipeg to favour Montreal for the CF-18 maintenance contract–that decision sparked the prairie fire that gave birth to the Reform Movement in the late 1980s. The cancelling of Frontier due to the federal government’s shenanigans stings the West more than most non-Western Canadians may appreciate.

Most Laurentian PM’s, however indifferent or callous to Western concerns they are, would certainly not wish to have the country collapse on their watch, yet it appears this government does not seem to share this concern.

The dragging on and negative signalling from Ottawa seems to have done the trick for Teck as much as it did for Trans Canada and for Kinder Morgan.

As consolation, perhaps the feds will offer Alberta economic aid. Unfortunately, Alberta voters are not for sale (much less bought with their own money). They want private sector jobs and autonomy instead of subjection to Laurentian dependency. No amount of Ottawa spend-and-spin will make Albertans receptive to systematic efforts to deliver deadly blows to the province’s largest employment generator.

So, while federal government uncertainty-creation made the Teck’s Frontier project disappear along with thousands of jobs, billions of dollars, and four decades of production, the cancellation will only further stoke among Albertans the already incandescent fires of the desire to go it alone.

Marco Navarro-Génie is President of the Haultain Research Institute and a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.