The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s conflict with oilsands developers has attracted international attention and their fight to slow oilsands expansion has run head-on into the far-reaching overhaul of federal environmental rules brought in by the Conservatives two years ago.
They call themselves “the people of the land of the willow” and have survived for thousands of years hunting, fishing and trapping along the Athabasca River in northern Alberta.
But today the 1,200 members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) are caught up in one of the largest industrial developments on the face of the planet — the expansion of the sprawling, land-devouring oilsands operations intended to produce 5.2 million barrels of oil a day by 2030.
The oilsands boom is seen by petroleum companies and the Harper government as essential to Canada’s future economic strength. But to the ACFN, it means something entirely different: Troubling cancer rates, contamination of vital waterways and damage to their homeland, livelihood and culture.
“Canada has become a playground for oil and gas companies and my peoples’ traditional territory is what’s being sold,” ACFN spokesperson Eriel Deranger says. “Our entire area is going to be annihilated by this type of developmsent.”
The ACFN’s conflict with oilsands developers has attracted international attention and emerged as a symbol of the struggle over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s much-disputed approach to exploiting Canada’s energy riches.
In Ft. Chipewyan, a recent Alberta Health Service report found slightly higher rates for cervical, lung and biliary tract cancers, although it concluded the overall cancer rate in the community is not significantly higher than normal.
Nonetheless, all sides agree there is cause for increased monitoring of the health and environmental impact of the massive extractive enterprise. Alberta authorities have recently issued warnings about consumption of fish and bird eggs in the Peace-Athabasca River Delta because of dangerous mercury levels. The cause of the increased mercury levels in the region, which is downstream from the oilsands, is unclear, authorities say.
And activists and aboriginals are demanding investigations of possible leakage into local waterways of toxins from the oilsands production waste held in tailings ponds.
In response to these and other concerns, oil companies have taken the unusual step of pooling technological innovations in hopes of reducing the oilsands’ environmental footprint and the industry is spending up to $50 million a year on a joint federal-Alberta monitoring project in the region.
“Ensuring industrial emissions. . . do not adversely impact human health is imperative,” says Greg Stringham of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
But the ACFN has little faith in governments’ stewardship. Fighting to slow the expansion of what critics call the “tarsands,” the tiny band has run head-on into the far-reaching overhaul of federal environmental rules brought in by the federal Conservatives two years ago.
This came in the form of a decision last year on Shell Canada’s proposed plan to nearly double the size of the Jackpine Mine oilsands plant near the band’s territory. The proposal, which would increase Jackpine’s oilsands production to 300,000 barrels a day, was the subject of regulatory approval hearings by a joint federal-Alberta review panel.
The panel found the Jackpine expansion would have “adverse environmental effects” on wetlands, traditional plant life, species at risk, migratory birds, old-growth forests, caribou and “biodiversity.” Further, the panel said the Jackpine expansion, in combination with other existing or planned oil sands projects, would have a negative impact on the rights, culture and traditional land use of aboriginals.
Despite those findings, the panel said the Jackpine proposal would provide economic benefits and was in the “public interest.”
The final word fell to the Harper cabinet. In the first decision under the streamlined 2012 environmental assessment legislation, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced the Jackpine expansion would go ahead because the government found the adverse environmental impacts “are justified in the circumstances.”
This chain of events has raised concerns about the entire regulatory approval process.
“It’s like an environmental horror story” but it was approved anyway, Jenny Biem, a lawyer working with the ACFN, said of the panel’s finding.
The ACFN is challenging Ottawa’s decision in court, a campaign that has won the support of thousands of Canadians, including singer-songwriter Neil Young.
The ACFN is arguing the federal government breached its duties to consult on the Jackpine expansion in keeping with the ACFN’s constitutional rights. Also, the ACFN’s court submission notes the federal cabinet did not provide an explanation about why the significant adverse impacts of the project were justified.
Shell Canada spokesperson David Williams wouldn’t comment on the case but said Shell has tried to build co-operative relationships with those living near the Jackpine mine. “We have worked successfully, going back 10 or 15 years, with numerous different groups and communities in and around the oilsands and usually managed to find agreeable solutions to concerns and issues around air, water and land.”
The ACFN is only one of many groups taking to the streets, the courts and the political stage to challenge the top-to-bottom overhaul of the country’s environmental posture both here and abroad, by the Harper government.
This policy shift came after years of pressure for regulatory reform from the oil and gas industry, which found a highly receptive audience in Ottawa after Harper’s Conservatives won a majority mandate in Parliament.
In late 2011, the industry wrote to the government urging them to overhaul “outdated” industry regulations and streamline rules for environmental assessments of oil and gas projects.
“At the heart of most existing legislation is a philosophy of prohibiting harm; ‘environmental’ legislation is almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes,” says the Dec. 12, 2011 letter to federal cabinet ministers from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and several other business groups. It was obtained by Greenpeace Canada through Access to Information.
Several months later, the government delivered a budget that responded to industry concerns about environmental assessments required for industrial projects by sharply narrowing the scope of regulations built up over decades — rules meant to protect Canadians from environmental damage.
Another behind-the-scenes glimpse of Ottawa’s attitude toward environmental issues and the petroleum sector is contained in a secret May 7, 2013 memorandum written for Wayne Wouters, the government’s most senior public servant, in preparation for a meeting with oil industry representatives.
The secret memo reminds Wouters of the environmental concerns arising from the oilsands. “Rapid growth in oil production from the oilsands has shed light on the significant environmental challenges associated with this economically important sector,” the memo says. “In particular, the oilsands are the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada.”
But the memo goes on to remind Wouters that petroleum companies are worried what steps the federal government, which had been trying to develop new pollution controls for the oil and gas sector, would take to meet its target for reducing emissions linked to global warming. “A key concern for industry is how the government will aim to reduce GHG emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020,” the memo notes.
At the time, then-environment minister Peter Kent had said he would be ready to put out the long-awaited regulations on oil and gas emissions in mid-2013. But those regulations, although promised seven years ago, did not emerge and Kent was dumped from cabinet by Harper in a ministerial shuffle in July 2013. Harper has since said oil and gas emissions rules will not be produced any time soon, citing the need to work with the United States “on a regulatory regime that will bring our emissions down.”
This timeframe may soon have to be re-evaluated. On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama is announcing a major GHG emissions-reduction plan.
The Harper government’s streamlining of environmental regulations and protections caught the green movement off guard, as the Conservatives did not campaign on such measures on the way to winning the 2011 election.
When the 2012 budget was released, the government explained the reforms would eliminate unnecessary regulatory holdups and help boost the economy. Industry made the same argument. But critics said it was a gutting of Canada’s environmental protections.
Canadians got a horrific wake-up call on this kind of deregulation last summer when a runaway 72-car oil tanker train allowed to operate with only one engineer exploded in Lac Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people. The accident came at a time when the number of rail tanker shipments of petroleum in this country has shot up to 140,000 a year.
The government is taking steps to increase the safety of oil-by-rail. But critics are asking what will be the price of Ottawa’s wider efforts to chip away at federal environmental protection.
• The 2012 budget brought in sweeping changes that greatly reduced the range of industrial projects that would be subject to environment impact studies, introduced measures to speed up assessments and gave the environment minister more power to decide what projects would be scrutinized. In some cases, a provincial assessment of a proposed project could substitute for a federal probe. As a result, nearly 3,000 environmental assessments were eliminated across Canada.
• The scope of fisheries protections was narrowed to cover only commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries — a move expected to significantly reduce protection for fish habitat.
• And revisions to 130-year-old waterways legislation mean 99 per cent of the country’s lakes and rivers will no longer benefit from the same environmental regulatory shield as in the past.
Among the government’s opponents, the whittling down of environmental protection measures has prompted thoughts of past catastrophes, such as the mercury poisoning from a pulp mill in Dryden, Ont., that devastated two First Nations communities decades ago or the tainted water tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., where government cutbacks contributed to an E. coli outbreak that left seven dead and 2,300 ill.
“There will be disasters,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said of Ottawa’s new environmental regime. It could be commercial developments impacting humans, species at risk or fish habitat, she said. Under the new environmental assessment act, “significant issues for the health of a local environment are not even looked at anymore,” she said in an interview.
“People don’t realize how stunningly devastating these changes are. Our environmental assessment regime, I don’t know if it’s worse than most Third World countries, but it wouldn’t be the pride of any Third World country.”
• In recent years, the federal government has eliminated funding for the Experimental Lakes Area research station in northwestern Ontario, the independent National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and other programs.
• Federal government scientists have complained of being muzzled by the Conservatives and a survey commissioned last year by The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that more than half of Environment Canada scientists feel the department fails to incorporate the best climate change science in its policies.
• The ecoEnergy home retrofit program, a popular plan that had allowed more than 650,000 homeowners to use federal grants to make their dwellings more energy-efficient, was killed.
• In 2011, Canada became the first country to formally pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. The federal government since admitted it won’t meet its recent target of reducing emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, noting that the largest source of new greenhouse gas emissions is the oilsands.
• With the Conservatives’ environmental reforms in place, funding for Environment Canada’s climate change and clean air program is expected to be slashed, dropping from $234 million to $54 million within several years.
As its chosen emissions-reduction instrument, the Harper government has favoured tougher sector-by-sector regulations to try to bring down emissions of the gases linked to global warming.
Aglukkaq, the federal environment minister, was unavailable for an interview. But spokesperson Amanda Gordon said the “government’s priority is to protect the environment while keeping the economy strong.”
The government has brought in emissions regulations for two of the largest polluting sectors — transportation and electricity generation — that will significantly reduce GHGs, she noted.
In another environmental initiative, Harper on May 15 announced a National Conservation Plan under which Ottawa will spend $252 million over 5 years to encourage conservation agencies to work with Canadians to raise matching funds for projects to preserve waters and lands.
What all this means to Canadians and the country’s environmental posture may become clearer this fall. That’s when Julie Gelfand, the federal environmental watchdog, will release a series of audits examining the government’s efforts to reduce climate change, monitor the oilsands, implement the new environmental assessment legislation, keep fisheries viable and implement “sustainable development strategies.”