- Category: news
- Created: Thursday, 22 August 2013 12:57
- Published: Thursday, 22 August 2013 12:57
- Written by Administrator 3
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BY MARTY KLINKENBERG, EDMONTON JOURNAL
EDMONTON - The Fort McKay First Nation is promising a legal fight against a 250,000-barrel-per-day oilsands project that the province and industry have acknowledged could contribute to the local extinction of two caribou herds.
Chief Jim Boucher said he wants to talk with provincial officials about the Alberta Energy Regulator’s recent approval of Brion Energy’s Dover Commercial Project. The First Nation will take the matter to court unless its concerns are addressed, he said.
A wildlife assessment conducted as part of the approval process predicted two caribou herds whose ranges overlap with the project’s lease area will likely die off within 30 years. The local moose population will also dramatically decline, according to the assessment, which was introduced as evidence in the proceedings, Boucher said Friday.
“We have to protect and preserve our resources, and we will do whatever is necessary to accomplish that,” he said. “It is a given when it comes to the effects the decision will have on local caribou herds.”
The First Nation, which has worked hand in hand with oil and gas companies for decades, objected only to a portion of the project that proposes well pads within 1.2 km of a preserve where members hunt, fish, trap and participate in other traditional activities.
“What we are asking for is no different than what the Alberta government recently granted Fort McMurray, which is a buffer zone to separate industrial sites from areas of community activity and residential development,” Boucher said. “We want to preserve the ecological integrity of our land and water.”
The First Nation had asked for a buffer zone of 20 km along the border nearest its preserve, but the regulator declined, saying in its Aug. 6 decision that such a restriction would reduce economic benefits to the province. It also ruled the band did not introduce enough evidence to show the project will interfere with traditional activities.
The lease and proposed project — 95 km northwest of Fort McMurray — falls within the Fort McKay First Nation’s traditional land use area and overlaps with fur management areas registered to band members. The community includes about 700 Dene, Cree and Métis, and dates to 1820, when the Hudson’s Bay Company built a trading post near the current site.
Owned by Athabasca Oil and Petro-China and managed by Brion Energy, the project will utilize steam injection to heat bitumen beneath the ground and then flow it to the surface through wellheads. About 4.1 billion barrels is expected to be extracted during the project’s 65 years, providing the province with $26 billion in royalty payments and billions more in other benefits, including jobs.
Although approved by the regulator, the project still needs cabinet’s consent, and requires environmental and public land approvals from Alberta’s Department of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
In its decision, the regulator noted the company has committed to a wolf-culling program in collaboration with Alberta Environment and other operators in the oilsands.
In its submissions, the Dover Operating Corp. — since renamed Brion Energy — argued the project may help caribou and moose populations provided a predator management program is implemented.
The Alberta government has killed wolves to mitigate the effects of development and boost the population of other caribou herds around the province, but the practice is controversial.
Carrie Sancartier, spokeswoman for Alberta Environment, deferred when asked if plans are being made for a predator management program in conjunction with the Dover project. She said discussing it was too premature because the project is still being evaluated by department officials.
Simon Dyer, policy director for the Pembina Institute, said wolves are being made a scapegoat for development.
“Wolf control is a bit of a distraction when it comes to the bigger issue,” Dyer said.
“The root of the problem is habitat protection. Government has to improve the quality of habitat for caribou, even if it means starting to turn down projects.”
Helene Walsh, a wildlife biologist and caribou expert, acknowledged that a government wolf-killing program has helped sustain Alberta’s Little Smoky herd, but still calls it an “irresponsible solution.”
“The oilsands is being developed way too fast,” said Walsh, secretary of the environmental advocacy group Keepers of the Athabasca. “You can’t have a caribou population if you cut down their habitat. We are sacrificing one herd for another.”
The portion of the project the First Nation objects to is near the southern border of its Moose Lake reserve, 45 km west of Fort McKay. Members of the band maintain the reserve is one of the last and best areas where they can engage in traditional activities.
In affidavits filed as part of the hearing process, members of the community asked the regulator to set up a buffer zone.
Calling it a “land of milk and honey,” Jean L’Hommecourt described travelling by dogsled and canoe to the reserve as a youth, and now taking her children there in winter by truck and snowmobile to learn to fish and live off the land. She said a buffer zone around the preserve was a good idea, but added she’d prefer that there were no more projects at all.
“Enough is enough,” L’Hommecourt wrote. “I want to have a place to teach my grandchildren the way that I was taught — that is who I am.
“If I can’t do that, what is the point of living?”
Dayle Hyde, a spokeswoman for the band, said the regulator’s decision was disappointing but not surprising.
“Government has a very long history of approving oilsands projects in the region,” she said. “At the end of the day, their mandate is to fully develop the oilsands, and the decision reflected that.”
Hyde said the band is sensitive to criticism that it is objecting because it wants compensation to drop its challenge.
“This issue is not about money,” she said. “It’s about having one place that we can frequently access that is sacred to the people of Fort McKay.
“Fort McKay is surrounded by development. This is where we go as a refuge from that development.”
Mike Feenstra, spokesman for the Energy Department, said if First Nations are not satisfied with the decision, they have the ability to appeal it.