Canadian aboriginal group: Ottawa may have to delay decision on Teck oilsands mine

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada may have to delay a decision on whether to approve a massive new oilsands mine because some indigenous people have not been consulted adequately, an influential aboriginal band is suggesting.

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government must rule by end-February whether Teck Resources Ltd can build its C$20.6 billion ($15.7 billion) Frontier mine in northern Alberta, a project that is opposed by environmentalists and some legislators in the ruling Liberal party.

Ottawa has consulted broadly with aboriginal groups in the area, many of whom back the project. But the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is complaining the Albertan provincial government has not done enough to address its concerns.

“We are still talking with Alberta and remain hopeful that progress can be made from now until the end of February, when cabinet makes its decision on project approval,” Chief Allan Adam said in a Feb. 4 letter obtained by Reuters on Monday.

“However, this seems increasingly unlikely within the prescribed time lines for a final decision on the project.”

The letter was addressed to federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who last month noted cabinet has the power to delay a verdict that will be challenging for Trudeau regardless how the decision goes.

Green activists say approving Frontier would make a mockery of Trudeau’s promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. But saying no could infuriate Alberta, already angry over what local politicians claim is Ottawa’s bias against the energy industry.

The issue could be challenging. A court ruled in 2018 that Ottawa had failed to properly consult indigenous people before approving a crude pipeline, forcing talks to reopen.

“I would certainly encourage the government of Alberta to engage (in) conversations with the local First Nations in a manner that ensures the consultations are deep,” minister Wilkinson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Wilkinson though did not answer directly when asked whether Ottawa might delay the decision.

Adam listed 13 areas of concern, most of them related to the need to do more to protect the environment. The Alberta government said it had consulted extensively with the group, offering several ways to boost environmental protections.

“We recognize that Chief Adam intends to drive a hard bargain, as should any official representing his constituents. However, the Government of Alberta must carefully consider the interests of Alberta taxpayers,” said Jess Sinclair, spokeswoman for provincial environment minister Jason Nixon.

Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Ottawa:; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Grant McCool