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An Athabasca Oil Corp. operation.Lenny Lane

Regulatory hearings for a joint oil sands venture between Athabasca Oil Corp. and PetroChina Co. Ltd. begin this week after a nearby First Nations community raised objections to the project, saying one of the last remaining bits of relative wilderness in the area could be affected.

The Dover project, which will be constructed over five phases and eventually produce 250,000 barrels of bitumen per day, is slated to open some time this year. However, the Fort McKay First Nation said in a statement it has requested that Athabasca Oil – which owns Dover Operating Corp. as a joint venture with PetroChina – create a buffer area to protect the band's "traditional territory" around Namur Lake and the Gardiner Lakes about 100 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray.

The dispute will be heard beginning Tuesday at an Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board hearing in Fort McMurray.

"The community of Fort McKay where members live, work and go to school is surrounded by intensive oil sands development and almost all of its traditional territory is being industrialized by oil sands production or is leased for such development," said a statement provided by Fort McKay First Nation spokeswoman Dayle Hyde.

"Fort McKay's reserves adjacent to Dover's planned project provide a refuge for the community on its own lands that are relatively untouched by development."

According to Alberta Environment, the northern edge of the Dover project borders the Birch Mountains Wildland Provincial Park and Fort McKay's Namur Lake First Nation Reserve. Ms. Hyde said the First Nation is looking for a 20-kilometre buffer zone.

Dover spokeswoman Kristi Baron didn't speak to details of the dispute but said the company has been in discussions with the First Nation for about a year, with no resolution. She said there's no concern that the hearings will affect timelines for the project.

"The intention of the hearing is to decide one way or the other," Ms. Baron said.

"We've been flexible enough with the timelines on our end that it's really not a worry."

PetroChina bought 60 per cent of Athabasca's Dover and MacKay River projects for $1.9-billion in 2010. The agreement had a put/call option, allowing either side to trigger the sale of the remaining 40 per cent to PetroChina following regulatory approvals. But on Monday, Ms. Baron said "right now, we as a company are really just focused on the hearing and finding resolution on that."

Ms. Hyde has said many Fort McKay community members are employed in the oil sands and the First Nation tries to be "good neighbours to development." However, she also has described how the community of 700 is already surrounded by massive developments. For instance, she said the glow from the nearby Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Suncor Energy Inc. projects already light up the night sky.