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Suncor admits it doesn't have concrete plans to protect McClelland Lake Wetland Complex
The oil giant received AER's blessing in September to expand its Fort Hills mine into a sensitive peatland. An environmentalist group is now asking the regulator to reconsider.
Oil giant Suncor’s plans for protecting half of the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex (MLWC) in northeastern Alberta from the environmental impacts of a proposed tar sands mine expansion are wholly inadequate, according to the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA).
The environmentalist outfit, which is fighting the Fort Hills mine’s expansion at the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), says the existing plan’s inadequacy is readily acknowledged in Suncor’s latest submission to the AER.
AWA conservation specialist Phillip Meintzer told The Orchard about the environmental significance of the MLWC, which many Albertans are unaware of due to its remote location about 90 km north of Fort McMurray.
“This beautiful, intact, relatively undisturbed wetland area is predominantly peatland. And peat is important because it stores tons of carbon. It's the best, terrestrial tool we have for both pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it,” he explained.
Peatland composes just 3% of the planet’s surface area, but they store 30% of its land-based carbon.
While oil and gas companies use the prospect of carbon-capture technology to extract government subsidies, “we already have a tool that does that for us that’s nature-based,” said Meintzer.
“To dig up peatlands releases the carbon that's stored there, but it also hinders our ability to pull it back out of the atmosphere,” he added.
The complex is also home to 20 rare or endangered plant species and more than 200 migratory bird species, including the endangered whooping crane, use it as a stopover.
For this reason, AWA initiated an official reconsideration process for the mine’s expansion at the AER in March, phase one of which wrapped up with Suncor’s July 23 submission to the AER — the one AWA says reveals the company’s lack of commitment to protecting the wetland complex.
Under section 42 of the 2012 Responsible Energy Development Act, the regulator is permitted “in its sole discretion” to alter, pause or revoke a previous decision.
In December 2002, Alberta Environment gave Fort Hills conditional permission under the Water Act to expand its mine, which hadn’t yet begun operating, into half of the wetland complex, reversing a 1996 prohibition on any mining in the MLWC. One of these conditions was that the mine’s operator “develop an operational plan for the sustainability of the non[-]mined portion of the MLWC.”
The mine, which represents 10% of tar sands production, began operations in 2018, with an expected lifespan of 50 years. The expansion proposal got the go-ahead from the AER on Sept. 9.
Suncor plans to build an underground wall separating the half of the MLWC it’s permitted to mine from that half it isn’t, with digging slated to begin in 2025.
In its July 23 AER submission, Suncor said its approach to protecting half of the wetland complex shouldn’t be considered “static and wholly captured within the [operational plan].”
Meintzer says this was precisely the purpose of an operational plan.
He added that it’s highly unusual for a project of this nature to not have a full-blown environmental assessment, but the operational plan fails even by its lower standards.
“The operational plan is supposed to provide this guarantee. If it wasn’t complete and there's more work to be done, then it shouldn't have been approved,” he said, describing the “crux of our arguments.”
Suncor’s response to the AWA appears to be that the company cannot be relied upon to present the full nature of its environmental commitments until after the expansion is approved.
The project and its proposed expansion have been in the works for so long because it switched ownership multiple times while costs increased, Fort McMurray suffered a labour shortage and the 2008 financial crisis happened.
The company that initiated the proposal, TrueNorth Energy, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Koch Industries, first shelved the project in 2003, in part blaming the Kyoto Protocol. United Tri-Star Resources (UTS) bought out TrueNorth’s shares in the project the following year.
In 2005, Teck and Petro-Canada purchased shares of the mine. Suncor entered the picture in 2009, when it bought Petro-Canada, inheriting its status as the mine’s operator. In 2010, French firm Total purchased UTS. By 2015, Suncor was the project’s majority shareholder after purchasing some of Total’s shares.
Once the mine’s expansion got the go-ahead from the AER last year, Suncor bought out Teck’s share in the project in October. Fort Hills Energy Corporation is now approximately two-thirds Canadian-owned and one-third foreign-owned.
AWA received a copy of Suncor’s operational plan last year, but Meintzer had to spend months approaching around 25 experts in wetlands ecosystems before finding two “who didn't have conflicts of interest with energy companies, or weren’t already contractually bound by projects with Suncor” to evaluate the plan.
Those experts were Lorna Harris of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Brock University hydrology expert Kelly Biaggi.
Harris and Biaggi determined that the Fort Hills operational plan contains inadequate safeguards protecting the unmined portions of the wetland complex — a conclusion apparently shared by Suncor — which was the basis for AWA initiating the reconsideration process earlier this year.
Their report cited the operational plan’s failure to acknowledge risks of saline contamination, lack of modelling to assess changes to water quality and baseless assumption that the expansion will have no meaningful impact on water levels.
The researchers also noted that there’s no evidence that building a wall through the wetland will protect its unmined portion, nor does the plan present an alternative mitigation strategy in the event the wall fails.
She added that there “there is no evidence of anyone anywhere in the world being able to recreate a peatland of this type to the same quality anywhere.”
Prior to obtaining ministry approval, the expansion required approval from the Energy Utilities Board (EUB). The EUB’s October 2002 decision required Fort Hills to strike a sustainability committee of regulators and stakeholders to develop a plan to “sustain the unmined eastern portion of the wetland [emphasis added].”
But in its May 31 submission to the AER, Suncor appears to have moved this goalpost, stating that the purpose of the committee is to “to work towards the goal of minimizing damage to the non-mined portion of the MLWC [emphasis added].”
The use of “minimizing damage” suggests some level of damage is permitted, which fundamentally clashes with the EUB’s and Alberta Environment’s stated goal of sustainability.
“Our issue with the AER having approved this is they know what the conditions say,” Meintzer said.
He attributes the AER, with its reputation as an industry-captured regulator, even entertaining the possibility of reconsidering its approval to the heightened scrutiny its been under owing to the revelation that it concealed leakage from Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine from the Athabasca Chipewyan First nation for nearly a year.
AER spokesperson Teresa Broughton told The Orchard that the regulator is in the process of reviewing Suncor’s and AWA’s submissions.
“If we decide to exercise our discretion … to reconsider the operational plan, we will communicate the process that will be followed for the reconsideration, as well as whether the reconsideration will be conducted with or without a hearing,” Broughton wrote.
Once the decision is made, it will be available here.
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