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Report on Business Three First Nations call on Ottawa not to exempt oil sands projects from federal review

Three Athabasca-area First Nations from the Fort McMurray area are urging Ottawa not to exempt any oil sands projects from federal regulatory scrutiny, as the Liberal government has proposed.

Chiefs from Fort McKay First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation on Wednesday criticized Alberta’s oversight of in situ projects, which use steam and solvents to extract bitumen from underground, rather than open-pit mining. They said the province has a high threshold before it is willing to conduct a full review of those developments, and that industry typically splits them into smaller segments in order to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

“Unfortunately, Alberta does not know, or does not want to know, how to manage [the] cumulative effects” of the scores of such projects that affect traditional Indigenous territories, Mikisew Chief Archie Waquan said in a news release on Wednesday.

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“Adopting exemptions for in situ projects that allow industry to elude environmental assessment as the impacts on landscape and our people increase is not just crazy, it’s negligent,” he said.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna last week released a proposed list of the type of projects that would receive full federal impact assessments under the government’s proposed overhaul of environmental impact legislation. While Ottawa would assess proposed oil sands mines, the government indicated it would exempt in situ projects so long as Alberta maintains a legislated cap on oil sands emissions that was passed by the previous NDP government. The exemption proposal is widely seen as a response to pressure from the energy industry and the government of Alberta.

A Senate committee is currently reviewing proposed amendments to the bitterly contested legislation. The Liberal government argues Bill C-69 would speed up the review of major resource projects, ensuring those in the public interest are approved, while providing greater protection to the environment and the rights of Indigenous people.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney told the committee last week that passage of the bill in anything resembling its current form would severely hurt the oil industry, feed western alienation and provoke a court challenge from his government, especially if Ottawa subjects in situ projects to federal assessments.

However, in the release, the First Nations chiefs said that Ottawa has jurisdiction over threatened species such as caribou, over migratory birds and fisheries, and over the protection of Indigenous rights. And they threatened to pursue a legal challenge to oil sands projects that are approved under the Alberta regime.

The chiefs acknowledged that their communities benefit from oil and gas development. The three communities support Bill C-69, saying it would be a “significant improvement” over Alberta’s approach, assuming it includes scrutiny of in situ projects.

Fort McKay First Nation said there is already evidence that such oil sands developments are causing groundwater contamination.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has demanded fundamental amendments to Bill C-69, including the unqualified exemption of in situ projects from federal review. “There are big concerns here that need to be addressed,” said Tim McMillan, president of CAPP. "We believe the regulator with the experience, expertise and talent should be the regulator responsible,” he said, referring to the Alberta Energy Regulator.

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