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Fort McKay, Alta., seen from the air on Sept. 19, 2011.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The chief of a northern Alberta First Nation is calling for Premier Jason Kenney to approve a plan to preserve land for traditional use in an oil sands-rich region, a move that would threaten a long-delayed energy project that is also waiting for a provincial go-ahead decision.

Fort McKay First Nation has been working with government and industry officials for years to develop an access management plan for an area around Moose Lake, 65 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray. The plan is aimed at allowing “responsible development” while protecting Fort McKay’s treaty rights, Chief Mel Grandjamb said.

The First Nation is surrounded by oil sands development, and indeed is a major contributor, operating businesses that serve the industry. Its corporation employs about 1,600 people, and it generated $500-million in revenue in 2018. The management plan, which requires provincial certification, is a way to also preserve a lifestyle that goes back hundreds of years, Mr. Grandjamb said in an interview.

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“This area is the last of our existing area where we can hunt, gather, trap and practise our treaty rights. It’s very critical for us,” he said. “So having the Alberta government approve the plan, it would ensure that future development in that area is mitigated by the Moose Lake plan.”

Part of that plan includes a 10-km buffer zone around the lake. As a result, a portion of an oil sands project proposed by Prosper Petroleum Ltd. – and approved by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) – would encroach, Fort McKay First Nation says.

The First Nation has appealed the AER approval of Prosper’s Rigel project, issued in June, 2018, and is awaiting a court ruling. It says the government’s approval of the Moose Lake plan would essentially force Prosper to reconfigure its project so a proposed crude processing plant would be moved outside the buffer, something Fort McKay First Nation has asked it to do.

“Once the plan is approved, it becomes the guiding principles for development in the area. Then we implement the plan, with Prosper," the chief said.

This is part of a series of intertwined disputes involving Prosper, the First Nation, the company and two successive governments. Privately held Prosper asked a judge on Tuesday to force the provincial government to make a final decision on whether it can build the project, saying 19 months of waiting for an order in council has put it in dire financial straits.

Brad Gardiner, Prosper’s chief executive, has criticized Mr. Kenney’s pro-oil government for demanding that Ottawa expedite approvals for major projects such as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and Teck Resources Ltd.’s Frontier oil sands project, while stalling his company’s proposal.

Justice Barbara Romaine of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench adjourned Prosper’s case to Feb. 12. She also said Fort McKay First Nation should be involved in the proceeding.

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The First Nation has planned a conference for Jan. 31 in Edmonton, where attendees will review the Moose Lake Access Management Plan’s final draft. Mr. Grandjamb said it would be an ideal stage for Mr. Kenney’s government approve the plan.

“This is all we’re asking: Implement the hard work that we’ve worked together on. Let’s cross the finish line, Mr. Kenney, and let’s make this happen. You’re out there promoting responsible growth and we do the same,” he said.

Confirmed attendees include Alberta Indigenous Affairs Minister Rick Wilson and representatives from PetroChina, Sunshine Oilsands Ltd., Athabasca Oil Corp., Chevron Corp., Teck Resources, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Ltd. and Northland Forest Products Ltd. The First Nation has also invited executives from Prosper Petroleum as well as Mr. Kenney and his environment and energy ministers.

Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon’s office is in the process of determining whether Mr. Nixon or another official will attend, ministry spokeswoman Jess Sinclair said in an e-mail. She declined to comment on whether the Kenney government is prepared to approve the management plan.

Fort McKay First Nation says it has made a number of concessions within the Moose Lake plan to provide industry with flexibility to develop the oil sands, including reducing the buffer zone by half from an initial 20-km proposal.

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