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Alice Munro among Nobel Prize winners urging Trudeau to deny oilsands project

Canadian author Alice Munro and dozens of other Nobel Prize winners around the world have joined the heated opposition facing a massive oilsands project in northern Alberta, decrying the proposed development as "a disgrace."

Munro, Canadian biologist Jack W. Szostak and 40 other global winners from various fields signed a letter addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland urging them to deny the Teck Resources Ltd. plan, as well as any expansion of the fossil-fuel sector.

"The mere fact that they warrant debate in Canada should be seen as a disgrace," states the letter, which appeared on the Guardian's website Friday.

"They are wholly incompatible with your government's recent commitment to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. And with clear infringements on First Nations rights, such projects fly in the face of rhetoric and purported efforts towards reconciliation."

The signatories call fossil-fuel projects "an affront to our state of climate emergency," and say the "importance of leadership in the coming few years cannot be understated."

A decision on the $20.6-billion, 260,000-barrel-per-day Frontier project is supposed to come next week.

The project is expected to produce about four million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year over 40 years.

Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson responded to the letter by saying Canada needs to be the cleanest source of resources for global markets as it transitions to a low carbon future.

"Cabinet will be considering the Teck Frontier project based on its merits," he said in an email. 

"We will take into account all circumstances and information available to ensure this is the best Canada can offer the world in terms of sustainable and responsible development."

Those in favour of the proposal say it will create thousands of jobs and bolster Alberta's struggling economy. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Friday it would create 7,500 jobs and $70 billion of government revenue.

He also touted "cutting-edge technology" that would allow the Vancouver-based miner to produce oil with half the carbon emissions of an average barrel produced in North America.

Kenney told reporters in Calgary that he suspected the signatories were presented with a distorted view of the Frontier project.

"Many interest groups have been misrepresenting the Canadian oilsands as being the equivalent of thermal coal for example, which is manifestly ridiculous. It is counterfactual," said Kenney.

"Our challenge ... is to show the world a path forward about how we can extract energy with a shrinking environmental and carbon footprint. That's exactly what we'll do."

Kenney called Teck mines "one of the most progressive mining companies in the world" noting its recent commitment to a net-zero carbon plan by 2050.

Meanwhile, the company itself said it was committed to fostering a low-carbon economy.

"Lower carbon oil from Frontier would replace higher carbon sources and contribute to reducing global emissions," spokesman Chris Stannell said in an emailed statement.

Kenney also said the project was supported by 14 nearby First Nations and Metis communities and suggested the expected benefits would directly improve the lives of Indigenous people.

"We embrace the imperative of reconciliation. Reconciliation first and foremost means giving Aboriginal people a way out of poverty," he said.

Nevertheless, opposition has been fierce.

Critics have raised questions about how the mammoth dig would impact woodland caribou, old-growth forests, and waterfowl habitat.

And in public letters sent last week to the federal government and to other chiefs, Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam said he was worried that Alberta's failure to consult and take meaningful action on environmental concerns could jeopardize the project.

Opposition is strong even among Trudeau's own Liberal caucus, where many Liberal MPs have openly campaigned against approval and consider it antithetical to Trudeau's pledge to combat climate change.

Munro won the 2013 literature prize while Szostak won the 2009 prize in medicine. Other signatories include Bangladeshi banker Muhammad Yunus, who won the peace prize in 2006, South African-born novelist John Coetzee, who won the literature prize in 2003, and Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek who won the 2004 literature prize.

The project has also drawn criticism from Hollywood stars Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, and Joaquin Phoenix.

The controversy comes as Trudeau's government deals with another major energy project that crosses First Nations territory in northern British Columbia.

Hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en Nation oppose the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline and have blocked access to the work site, while Wet'suwet'en supporters have held protests on rail lines across the country.

After two weeks, Trudeau said Friday the barricades must come down.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 21, 2020.

— By Cassandra Szklarski in Toronto

 

The Canadian Press