Breakenridge: Provincial delay over oilsands project approval smacks of hypocrisy


Updated: February 26, 2020

There were to have been two decisions this week concerning two proposed oilsands developments in Alberta.

Obviously, the unexpected curveball from Teck and the sudden decision to withdraw its proposed Frontier oilsands mine has taken one of those decisions off the table. The ensuing debate and finger-pointing over what appears to be Frontier’s demise will almost certainly overshadow the other decision that we are still expecting this week.

Premier Jason Kenney is not wrong when he laments the lack of federal leadership and the lack of federal clarity and how that all played a role in Teck’s decision. He’s not wrong when he notes that “weeks of federal indecision on the regulatory approval process” have “created more uncertainty for investors looking at Canada.”

So, hopefully, the premier can now lead by example and show how it can be done.

For while the Teck Frontier matter was a federal decision, the other shoe to drop this week concerns a provincial decision: whether to approve Prosper Petroleum’s proposed Rigel oilsands project northwest of Fort McMurray. While considerably smaller than Frontier, it still represents the sort of jobs and economic activity that Alberta’s energy sector is so hungry for at the moment.

And that’s what makes the Alberta government’s foot-dragging on this project so bizarre.

The reason we know that a decision on Rigel looms this week is not because the Alberta government has indicated its intent to provide an answer. In fact, the Alberta government seems to be going out of its way to avoid giving the company an answer.

The reason why this decision is expected to land this week is that seven days ago a judge ordered the Alberta government to make a decision within 10 days. (The province has said it will appeal the decision, so it remains to be seen how that plays out.)

The company has strangely been left in limbo since June 2018, which is when the Alberta Energy Regulator gave its blessing to the Rigel project. That meant it fell to the government to make a final decision. While this period obviously encompasses the final months of the NDP government, it also now encompasses 10 months of UCP government.

It smacks of hypocrisy — a most unhelpful form of hypocrisy — to have an Alberta government so adamant that the federal government makes a swift and favourable decision on a project before it, while failing to do so themselves.

Moreover, the Alberta government has made a point repeatedly of lecturing Ottawa about the importance of regulatory certainty while simultaneously letting Prosper Petroleum twist in the wind for over a year and a half.

Even the judge noticed the inconsistency in Alberta’s position, pointing out that Kenney has “characterized lesser delays on the much more complicated federal Trans Mountain project as taking too long, even though that project required consultation with over 100 Indigenous groups as compared to the three that Prosper was required to consult with.”

Alberta might have valid concerns about Prosper’s proposal and might even be justified in rejecting it. But then the premier might have to concede that the feds, too, might have had valid concerns about the Teck Frontier project and reasons to reject it.

Governments are not obligated to make certain decisions when it comes to these kinds of projects. Let’s hope the pros and cons are honestly and objectively assessed. But regardless of yes or no, companies deserve to be treated fairly and deserve predictability when it comes to the decision-making process.

It’s possible both of these proposed projects might join — or have joined — the queue of other approved but stalled oilsands projects. Certainly, with Teck’s decision, it makes it all the more important that the province gives Prosper Petroleum some clarity, ideally in the form of a yes.

Step 2 should then be looking at ways of trying to incentivize some of those other stalled projects to start moving forward. If stronger leadership and clear signals from the government are what’s needed, let’s see it from the premier.

“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays 12:30-3:30pm on 770 CHQR  Twitter: @RobBreakenridge

Source: The Calgary Herald