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Earlier in December, Canada‘s Federal Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, issued a Decision Statement outlining the conditions under which the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation may expand its Jackpine Mine operations in northern Alberta’s Athabasca region. Located 70 kilometres from Fort McMurray, the Jackpine Mine will increase by a total of 100,000 barrels upon completion of the development.
The mine will also grow from 7,500 to 13,000 hectares and is promised to bring the province $17 billion in royalties and taxes while creating more than 700 full time jobs.
Enclosed in Minister Aglukkaq’s Statement were "mitigation measures" central to the decision to approve Shell’s expansion. "I determined that the designated project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects," she wrote. "[I have] decided that the... environmental effects that the designated project is likely to cause, are justified in the circumstances."
For many following this announcement, Minister Aglukkaq’s justification is not baseless -- the development will undoubtedly bring a windfall of quick profit and revenue to Alberta. But to those residing in the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), the question might be justification for whom?
Prior to its approval, a federal-provincial panel convened to impose conditions on the expansion and determine to what extent its environmental impacts would be mitigated. Among other measures, Shell was ordered to implement monitoring of aquatic ecosystems, maintain communication with Aboriginal communities and supply annual updates on water quality.
The ACFN, dissatisfied with poor and imprecise data from the multinational, requested a 90-day moratorium on the decision to "work some of [its] issues through." It was eventually granted a 35-day extension, but the federal government’s approval came before that period expired.
Frustrated by this sidestepping of community consultation, the ACFN has vowed to pursue legal action against the company.
Detailing the expansion
According to Shell’s assessment, the Jackpine expansion and all other industrial activities could destroy up to 185,872 hectares of wetlands and muskeg in the region (18 per cent), and deleteriously alter the habitats of many species including caribou and bison. Increased emissions from the project are also poised to worsen air quality linked to human respiratory diseases in nearby communities.
Overall, the growth of the mine marks a step back from federal and provincial climate commitments to lower greenhouse gas emissions contributing to anthropogenic climate change.
Shell has planned to offset the expansion’s effect on wildlife by purchasing 730 hectares of pasture in the northwest of the province to compensate for 8,500 hectares of wetland the company admits will be irretrievably lost. The conservation zone will equal less than nine per cent of the original area.
According to Shell’s official website, the Jackpine expansion is a significant application because it presents an opportunity to improve "operational flexibility" on Leases 88 and 89, both of which lie adjacent to the Muskeg River. Preliminary corporate assessments already conclude that 21 kilometers of the river -- still considered sacred hunting and trapping territory -- will be destroyed by the expansion.
This news has agitated not only the ACFN, but members of the Fort McKay First Nation who also utilize the river. That community is presently locked in its own legal battle to establish a 20 kilometre buffer zone to protect its land from a newly approved project headed by oil giant PetroChina Co. Ltd.
Promises and active commitment are two different things
Shell’s promises of reclamation are documented in the company’s January 2007 Public Disclosure, however they seem mostly anecdotal. Statements like the one reading "Shell Canada is committed to managing GHG emissions associated with expansion" are unscientific and vague and seemingly lack data associated to the company’s active commitment to addressing the concerns of Aboriginal people or the scientific community.
Evidence presented by the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition (OSEC), comprised of the Pembina Institute, the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Fort McMurray Environmental Association, was ignored more than a year ago despite its backing from experts including university professors and scientists.
There are valid reasons to be skeptical of Shell’s cleanup goals promising to "reclaim lands with self-sustaining ecosystems that are comparable to or better than what was there before development." The company plans to dig four end pit lakes (EPLs) which will cover over 100 square kilometers of land and bury industrial waste with fresh and runoff water. It is hoped this mixture will be gradually cleansed by the natural environment, but the process could take up to a century even with meticulous and constant monitoring.
A 436-page report issued in 2012 by the Cumulative Environmental Management Association provides the most comprehensive, peer-reviewed assessment of EPLs. It contains a litany of risks including water contamination, ecological degradation and significant downstream impacts, concluding "there are a long list of uncertainties associated with the [their] use as an oil sands reclamation tool."
Simply put, these lakes are likely to remain toxic for generations to come.
Justified for whom?
The Jackpine Mine expansion is a small component of Canada’s tar sands industry, but for the ACFN and other surrounding First Nations communities, it represents a profound encroachment upon the natural environment and basic human dignity.
While it is true that Shell’s development will guarantee enormous revenues (and some jobs) for the province of Alberta, are its negative environmental impacts really justified? Should such projects, underscored by serious risk, be approved without adequate community consultation? When bitumen is discovered, must we always extract it immediately and without foresight?
With the approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, Alberta is now, perhaps more than ever, a flashpoint for intense conflict over the future of Canada’s national energy vision. Though it is too soon to predict a change in its trajectory, those who wish to see it shift must demand accountability, stand behind scientific consensus and foster healthy discussions about these issues in their own communities.
In the not-so-distant future, such efforts may be recalled as fundamental to a decisive turning point in Canadian history.
Harrison Samphir is an editor and writer based in Winnipeg. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @HarrySamphir.
Photo: flickr/Howl Arts Collective
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