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Alberta Government Bans Environmental Groups From Oilsands Hearing, Again

The Alberta government has barred the Oilsands Environmental Coalition from hearings on a proposed new oilsands development by Southern Pacific Resource Corp., even after a similar decision last fall was overturned by a judge.

Conservationists say the decision only makes clearer the Alberta government's tendency to shut down public dialogue on resource development. "The government hasn't learned its lesson from last time," said Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, one of the groups in the coalition.

Dyer said the coalition will be appealing the second ruling, reports the Canadian Press.

Alberta Environment first denied the coalition standing to participate in hearings about a development on the MacKay River in northern Alberta in 2012, which would expand an existing steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) project. The expansion would result in the extraction of an additional 24,000 barrels per day (bpd) of bitumen.

The Alberta government argued that the group was not directly affected by the project, even though members of the Pembina Institute have a recreational lease in the area, and 45 others live nearby in Fort McMurray.

The coalition applied for a judicial review of the decision. During the process, a 2009 Alberta Environment memo was discovered that singled out the coalition, which includes Pembina and the Fort McMurray Environmental Association, as "not simple to work with" and as having published "negative media on the oil sands."

Justice Richard Marceau invalidated the government's decision on the basis of the 2009 memo, writing in his statement that the law does not permit the Alberta government to "reject statements of concern from those persons or groups who voice negative statements about proposed oil sands development."

"The process of identifying who is 'directly affected' should not be decided by the application of rigid rules," Marceau wrote, noting that there would be no environmentalist voices present at the Southern Pacific hearing if the coalition were barred.

Regardless, in a March 27 letter to the coalition, Alberta Environment official Kevin Wilkinson repeated the very reasoning that got the 2012 decision overturned.

Wilkinson wrote that the coalition is not a legal entity and cannot therefore be considered directly affected, saying that the recreational lease "is no more compelling than the ability for any Albertan to recreate on public land." He added that homes in Fort McMurray, 45 kilometres from the development, were too distant for residents to be considered directly affected.

Wilkinson also assured coalition members that their concerns would be "considered by the designated director, even if the person who submitted the concern is found not to be directly affected."

Dyer noted that the coalition has participated in many other provincial hearings before, and continues to be granted standing at joint federal-provincial hearings. He said that the government's decision is indicative of a pattern of tighter restrictions on who gets to voice concern to regulators about the oilsands.

Earlier this year, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) cancelled the public hearing on the Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s proposed Kirby Expansion Project after none of the groups that applied to participate were allowed standing. Statements of concern were filed by the Oilsands Environmental Coalition and several First Nations, all of whom were denied. The Kirby Expansion Project, another SAGD project, was subsequently "referred by the hearing panel AER staff for further review and dispensation without hearing."

Nigel Bankes, professor of resource law at the University of Calgary, called the government's tests for deciding standing at hearings "narrow and stringent."

Spokeswoman Katrina Bluetchen said that there has been no regulatory change at Alberta Environment. "Nothing has changed," she said. "It was deemed (the coalition) was not directly affected."

The government has kept information on how many groups have been denied standing in hearings restricted. An access to information request put in by the Canadian Press has been at Alberta Environment for six months without any result.

Dyer thinks Alberta Environment's actions harm the ability of the province to evaluate the impact of resource development, saying that "the government should err on the side of allowing people to speak and collecting input" to help make responsible decisions.

Image Credit: Kris Krug via Flickr

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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