New Frontier for the oilsands

There’s a constant lack of long-term thinking, and business basics, on the part of so many vocal opponents of major resource projects.

Time and again, they look at current (or outdated) market prices for oil and natural gas, ignore expert projections for prices 10 and 20 and further years down the road, assume demand for oil, in particular, will rapidly shrink, and happily announce that therefore Project X would be a bust.

But why are Shell and its partners willing to bet $40 billion on LNG Canada? Why is Teck Resources proposing a $20.6-billion investment in the Frontier Mine in the oilsands?

It’s because those companies have educated projections as to what their commodities — and the returns on them — will be worth 10 and 20 and 30 and 40 years out.

In its 2015 application to Ottawa, Teck spoke of a future average long-term price of US$95 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate oil. One Calgary analyst says US$70-$80 could make a large oilsands mine economically viable.

(When Teck applied, WTI averaged US$52.32. Just a month ago, WTI oil was at US$55. But the weekend’s closing price was $62.71.)

Keep the operating costs down (and Teck is a smart and experienced miner) and there are profits to be made.

The project has been approved by federal and provincial regulators, but for a Final Investment Decision Teck needs as well the key green light from the federal cabinet, and that raises a string of questions and concerns.

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says Ottawa must assess how Frontier fits into the government’s promise to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

He insists: “That target that is not informed by politics. It’s informed by science.”

(Few observers think it’s realistically achievable. After all, a United Nations report a few weeks ago found Canada is already well behind on its promise to meet its much less demanding 2030 target under the Paris Agreement.)

If Wilkinson thinks he’s informed by science, he might also make it a goal for 2020 to keep these facts in mind when making complex decisions:

  • World demand for oil is not going away. The International Energy Agency sees demand slowing over time, but continuing.
  • Oilsands operations have dramatically improved their environmental impact. (The “dirtiest oil in North America” is produced not here, but in “green California” and Alaska. Canadian boosters of Saudi Arabian and other dictator oil are doing their fellow citizens no favours by pushing for higher oil imports from regimes that reject carbon pricing and environmental protection policies.)
  • Teck has signed agreements with the 14 First Nations affected by the project.
  • The Frontier mine is expected to generate $70 billion in government revenues.

And while Wilkinson might be sticking to his mantra of net zero by 2050, Teck and those 14 First Nations might like to remind the prime minister of this:


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