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Critics blast Shell, saying its Jackpine oilsands plan will harm the environment

By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal November 21, 2012
EDMONTON – Shell Canada is trying to “sneak” its Jackpine project past regulators before the regional plan is complete, and the $12-billion mine expansion should be delayed for a year, a review panel was told in the final day of hearings into the project 100 km northeast of Fort McMurray.

The company came under heavy fire Wednesday, partly because its plan to move the Muskeg River, in order to mine the riverbed, runs counter to a 2008 provincial plan calling for protection of the watershed.

First Nations also said Shell’s science is “biased”and “full of gaps,” while the company’s refusal to set aside conservation land to offset habitat destruction drew fire from federal interveners.

Environmentalists rejected the company’s claim there will be “no unacceptable, long-term environmental effects” after decades of mining.

“Such a conclusion cannot possibly be drawn” about the proposed mine that will dig up 18,000 hectares, destroy 90 per cent of wetlands in the project area, remove old growth forests, and leave behind three end pit lakes, said Melissa Gorrie, lawyer for the Oilsands Environmental Coalition.

The Jackpine project, to produce 100,000 barrels of bitumen daily, is becoming a test case for whether cumulative effects — the growing environmental footprint of all oilsands projects — should be taken into account in approving each project.

There are signs the ecosystem can’t handle the pace of development and by the time all approved oilsands projects are built, the amount of land disturbed in northeast Alberta will be three times what it is today, Gorrie said.

Shell’s own environmental study points out that there will be serious loss of habitat for birds, caribou, moose and other wildlife — from 20 per cent up to 60 per cent loss of habitat for some species — if all planned projects go ahead, Gorrie said. As well, air quality standards outlined in the recently approved Lower Athabasca Regional Plan will be exceeded.

The company argues that these cumulative effects should not be considered in reviewing the Jackpine application. The information is useful only for regional planning purpose, the company Tuesday told the three-man joint review panel from the Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board and federal environment agency.

But the environmental advocates and First Nations argued cumulative effects should be taken into account.

“We’re asking the board to look at the big picture — what the landscape will look like down the road,” said Gorrie, who called for a delay of the project until the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan’s biodiversity framework is in place to establish safe thresholds for habitat loss in the oilsands areas.

The company has also refused to consider providing conservation land to offset loss of some habitat or the destruction of peatlands which cannot be replaced.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, told the panel the project could be a turning point because of the growing cumulative effects.

Also, “the Muskeg River must be left in its natural state. In 2008, the province drew up the Muskeg River Interim Management Framework because of growing development pressure in the areas. The plans called for no diversion of the river in 2009, although it noted Shell was preparing an application to mine the area. It promised a permanent plan for the river basin but that has not happened.

First Nations groups also said that despite lots of consultation with Shell, their views had no impact on the project.

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