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A tailings pond stands at the Syncrude Canada Ltd. upgrader plant in the Athabasca Oil Sands near Fort McMurray, Alta., on June 2.Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

A key agency that monitors cumulative impacts of oil sands development is on the verge of shutting down unless industry and government step up with more funding.

The Fort McMurray-based Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) has scheduled a vote for Sept. 24 on whether to disband the industry-funded group because there is no money to continue its work next year.

The cash crunch is the result of changes set to take effect next year that will enable oil sands companies to opt out of supporting the agency, putting its $5-million research budget in jeopardy. Currently, they are mandated to participate in the agency through the project-approval process.

At the same time, the group has been told that Alberta's NDP government will not make up any shortfall, meaning research assessing the impacts of oil sands development on air, land and water could grind to halt.

"We've tried to highlight the importance that this organization plays in the management of cumulative effects in the oil sands," said Daniel Stuckless, CEMA's president and a senior manager of environment and regulatory affairs with the Fort McKay First Nation. "It's the last truly independent organization out there. We're not sure what it will be replaced with, or what it could be replaced with."

Funding for the agency has been in limbo for years, making it difficult to co-ordinate research efforts. Under the former Progressive Conservative government, the group last year secured one year's worth of funding, but it was prevented by the provincial government from taking on any new work. It also faced government review.

Industry groups have long argued the agency is redundant and should be folded into initiatives such as the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program (JOSM), a federal-provincial partnership launched in 2012, and, more recently, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA).

But critics say those groups lack aboriginal representation and independence. COSIA, for instance, comprises 13 major oil sands companies, while the Fort McKay First Nation long ago abandoned JOSM, calling it a "frustrating and futile" endeavour.

CEMA, by contrast, includes multiple First Nations and Métis communities. At least two of those groups, the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, have urged Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips to clarify the government's position on the agency's future.

"MCFN requests that Alberta seriously reconsider its current position, which seems to favour the disbanding of CEMA while taking an in-house approach," Chief Steve Courtoreille wrote in a letter to the minister last month. "We would request instead that the [government] immediately provides the needed support to allow for the continuation of CEMA as it exists."

Since taking office in the spring, the NDP under Premier Rachel Notley has sought to build closer ties with aboriginal groups. The province is forecast to slide into recession this year and faces a deficit of as much as $6.5-billion as oil revenue plummets.

Some fear the loss of CEMA would leave First Nations and Métis with considerably less sway in shaping policies related to wildlife protection and water use in the oil sands region. The agency is currently crafting a traditional knowledge framework to help inform future development.

"That process is going to be cut short, and it makes no sense when at the same time the government is talking about rebuilding relationships with aboriginal organizations," said Kyle Harrietha, general manager of McMurray Métis, a Fort McMurray-based non-profit group.

"It's not clear to us how the government is going to succeed in rebuilding relationships when it's getting rid of the only multistakeholder forum that currently exists."

A spokeswoman for Ms. Phillips did not respond to a request for comment by deadline Friday.

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