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First ministers meeting shaping up to be most acrimonious in years

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  • OTTAWA — Wrangling over the agenda doesn’t bode well for Friday’s first ministers’ meeting, which is shaping up as one of the most fractious gatherings of Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial leaders in decades.

    Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is bracing for a barrage of criticism from premiers upset about the federal approach to pipelines, carbon taxation, environmental assessments, GM’s Oshawa plant closure in Ontario and the oil price crisis. 

    Meanwhile, federal officials privately concede little headway is likely to be made on the official objective of the Montreal meeting: reducing interprovincial trade barriers.

    Indeed, the feds are fully expecting the most openly hostile premier — Ontario’s Doug Ford — will do his best to derail the meeting altogether, including potentially storming out of the gathering or possibly even boycotting it outright.

    Their suspicions have been stoked by what federal insiders say are the hardball games Ford and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe are playing on the agenda, demanding that it be expanded in writing to include the oil price crisis and the planned federal tax on carbon pollution.

    According to sources familiar with the dispute, who were not authorized to speak publicly, the pair have not been satisfied by the federal response that the agenda already includes a discussion on economic competitiveness — a broad topic that Ottawa says will allow premiers to raise all the issues they please.

    Moe confirmed in an interview Wednesday that there is “some frustration, myself included, with the agenda provided by the prime minister,” which includes having some federal ministers address the premiers on their initiatives.

    He said he intends to raise the oil price crisis, the carbon tax, pipelines and repeal of Bill C-69, which re-writes the rules for environmental assessments of energy projects.

    “We’d like it in writing, confirm that we’re going to discuss those items. But rest assured that the premier of the province of Saskatchewan will bring those items to the floor (regardless),” Moe said, adding that he doesn’t intend to leave the meeting early.

    Even the guest list for a pre-meeting dinner hosted by Trudeau on Thursday evening has become a matter of dispute. The feds proposed that it be a private affair for first ministers only, with a single notetaker present. The premiers demanded that each be allowed to bring one official.

    This will be the fourth first ministers’ meeting Trudeau has hosted since becoming prime minister in 2015. And it’s certain to be the most acrimonious.

    Since first ministers’ last met, the prime minister has lost several of his most reliable provincial Liberal allies — Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne, Quebec’s Philippe Couillard and New Brunswick’s Brian Gallant.

    He now faces a phalanx of conservative premiers, four of whom — Ford, Moe, Manitoba’s Brian Pallister and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs — have joined in court challenges to the federal carbon pricing plan and one of whom — Ford — has engaged in conflicts with the federal Liberals in general.

    Alberta’s NDP Premier Rachel Notley was initially an ally for Trudeau, supporting him on carbon pricing. But she parted company last summer over the failure to get the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project off the ground and is now crusading for federal help to ease the discount price Alberta is obliged to accept for its oil because it can’t get it to tidewater for shipment overseas.

    She and Moe sent Trudeau a letter this week, asking that the agenda for the first ministers’ meeting be revised to include the oil price crisis, which they argued is costing the country $80 million per day.

    And Notley disparaged the federal government’s preferred focus on interprovincial trade barriers.

    “We tend to have conversations about minor internal trade issues and then when it’s my opportunity to talk, I say, ‘Well, there’s one big internal trade issue that we have about getting our product from one province to another and to other markets and it’s actually worth 100 times the value of these other issues,” she said Tuesday.

    Quebec Premier Francois Legault issued a statement late Wednesday outlining several demands he plans to make of Ottawa.

    “During this meeting, I will have the opportunity to set out my vision and to defend Quebec’s interests on several issues, including the tariffs on aluminum and steel as well as the amount owed by the federal government in the asylum-seekers file,” Legault is quoted as saying.

    According to the statement, he’ll also press Ottawa on the “excessive and ever longer” period taken to process Quebec’s files, and will insist that the federal government grant full compensation to Quebec dairy producers affected by the signature of the USMCA.

    Trudeau said Wednesday that he looks forward to “talking about anything the premiers want to talk about.”

    “I’m looking forward to a broad range of discussions on whatever it is they have as priorities,” he said on his way into the House of Commons. “Including oil, of course. Natural resources are an essential part of our economy. We’re going to be talking about that as well.”

    Notley, Moe and a number of other premiers, including Newfoundland and Labrador’s Dwight Ball and Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, also want to talk about Bill C-69, federal legislation that is currently stalled in the Senate and which would re-write the rules for environmental assessments of energy projects. Critics maintain it will create more red tape and delays in project approvals that will scare off potential investors.

    “We are looking for clarity around Bill C-69,” Ball said in an interview, adding that it’s creating uncertainty in his province’s offshore oil and mining industries.

    “We know that the regulatory regime can be an impediment in attracting investment.”

    In a similar vein, Biggs said he wants to talk about reviving the defunct Energy East pipeline proposal, which TransCanada abandoned last year, citing regulatory hurdles and changed circumstances.

    First ministers are to meet for two hours with Indigenous leaders Friday morning before holing up behind closed doors for some six hours with Trudeau.

    — With files from Ryan McKenna in Regina and Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John’s

    Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press


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    Environment

    First Nation sues Alberta, says oilsands project threatens sacred site

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  • EDMONTON — An Alberta First Nation is suing the province over development approvals that the band says threaten sacred land the government has promised to protect.

    “We will not stand idly by and let the area be destroyed,” Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort McKay First Nation, said in a release.

    Fort McKay, a community of 800 about 80 kilometres from Fort McMurray, is surrounded by open-pit oilsands mines on three sides. The closest is within four kilometres.

    Band members have long considered the pristine area around Moose and Namur lakes, west of the community, their last refuge for  traditional hunting, trapping and berry-picking. The lawsuit argues there has been so much development in the region — from energy exploration to forestry to agriculture — that Moose Lake is all Fort McKay has left. 

    “Without the preservation of the Moose Lake area, the plaintiffs will no longer be able to meaningfully exercise their treaty rights,” says the statement of claim, which contains allegations that have not yet been proven in court.

    “(Moose Lake) is now under imminent threat from industrial activity that has been or will be approved by Alberta.”

    The provincial government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.  

    The alleged threat comes from an approval granted last June by the province’s energy regulator for an oilsands project that would come within two kilometres of Moose Lake. Prosper Petroleum’s $440-million, 10,000-barrel-a-day plans were vigorously opposed by Fort McKay at the time.

    The green light came despite a provincial draft plan — the result of 15 years of talks under several different governments — to give the area some protection.

    That plan contemplated a 10-kilometre zone around Moose and Namur lakes with safeguards for protecting Fort McKay’s land use. It would have established access control, environmental monitoring and thresholds for the surrounding region.

    The Alberta Energy Regulator said at the time that it had taken into account social and economic issues, as well as impacts on treaty rights.

    However, the regulator said it couldn’t weigh the approval’s effect on the province’s plan for the lake area because that plan was still being discussed and hadn’t been implemented.

    The lawsuit asks the court to overturn permits for industrial activity within the 10-kilometre zone. It also asks the court to forbid Alberta from authorizing any more activity in the area unless Fort McKay agrees to it.

    “Alberta has failed to … protect the Moose Lake area from the impacts of industrial development,” the statement of claim says. “Alberta will continue, unless restrained from doing so, to undertake or approve industrial development within the Moose Lake area.” 

    Prosper Petroleum has said it is committed to addressing its neighbours’ concerns.

    The company would use steam injected into shallow horizontal wells to melt heavy, sticky bitumen crude and allow it to drip into a parallel well before being pumped to the surface, where it would be transported by truck to a buyer or pipeline.

    — Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

    Bob Weber, The Canadian Press


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    Environment

    Climate change, receding glaciers increase landslide risk on B.C.’s Mount Meager

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  • VANCOUVER — Climate change is causing glaciers atop Mount Meager in British Columbia to shrink, increasing the chances of landslides and even a new eruption, says an expert studying the volcano.

    Glyn Williams-Jones, a volcanologist from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has been studying the fumaroles, or gas venting, of water vapour, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide from the volcano for about two years. He and his team of students are also examining the increased risk of landslides caused by receding glaciers on the volcano.

    Williams-Jones said the release of the gases worries him.

    “The reason those fumaroles are coming, we believe now, is not because the volcano is more active but rather because of warming climate … those glaciers have been getting thinner,” he said. “There is this interplay between climate, ice-covered volcano and the response of those volcanoes.”

    The churning gases don’t mean an eruption is imminent, he said, but the volcano is definitely not extinct.

    Mount Meager is northwest of Whistler and was the last volcano in British Columbia to have a large explosive eruption, which was 2,400 years ago.

    “That’s a blink of an eye in geological terms,” Williams-Jones said.

    Volcanoes have their own characteristics and personalities, he said.

    “It is a grumpy volcano in the sense that it has had some very large eruptions and also had these extremely large landslides. So I’d say yes, it’s on the grumpy side.”

    Mount Meager has been forming over the last two million years, so it can be thought of as “multiple volcanoes old,” each sitting on top of each other, he said. 

    It is surrounded by ice and glaciers and the presence of a well-known hot spring nearby is evidence of its activity, he said.

    Heat from the volcano and warming temperatures are thinning the glaciers, changing the way water moves through the rocks, he added.

    The water’s movement and the acidic nature of the volcanic gases makes the rock of the volcano “rotten” and unstable, William-Jones said.

    The slope of the volcano is moving northwest at the rate of about three centimetres a month, which increases the potential for a landslide, he said.

    A landslide in 2010 from Mount Meager unleashed about 53 million cubic metres of rock and created a dam on Meager Creek about 300 metres wide and two kilometres long.

    About 5,000 people downstream were evacuated because of the threat of a rapid release of the lake that formed behind the dam.

    William-Jones said it’s possible the next landslide could be 10 times that size, with the greatest threat to residents of the Pemberton Valley.

    If that happens, the change in pressure could destabilize the magma chamber beneath the volcano leading to an eruption, he said.

    “There are a lot of big ifs and a lot of dominoes would have to line up for that to happen but we think this is a plausible thing to be concerned about.”

    Williams-Jones said he’s not being alarmist, but there’s a need for monitoring and government attention.

    He couldn’t say if or when the volcano would erupt, a calculation made even more difficult by the lack of data.

    “The thing about volcanoes is that they’ve got their own personalities and they’re extremely unpredictable,” William-Jones said. “To say when Meager is going to reactivate is anyone’s guess. Even the best monitored volcanoes can catch you unawares and by surprise.”

    Williams-Jones was at the site in September and said looking down into the mouth of the volcano is like looking into a cave about 50 metres long and 30 metres wide. The ice is about 100 metres at its thickest and gets down to about 50 metres as it thins around the caves.

    There is no “mouth of hell” with a big, glowing, red or orange mass of lava, he said.

    “What you’re looking at is this inclined opening with steam and gas pouring out. And melting water from the ice pouring down into it,” he said.

    — Follow @hinakalam on Twitter

     

    Hina Alam, The Canadian Press


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