Suncor plans to pump 1 billion barrels of oil from a wetland — however vows to guard the opposite half with a wall

When Elder Barb Faichney flips by household photographs, McClelland Lake is a recurring theme. Her household’s trapline skirts the banks of the lake north of Fort McMurray, Alta., which has lengthy been a particular place for them to hunt, entice and collect.

This is probably not the case for future generations, she stated, if power large Suncor strikes forward with a plan to broaden its Fort Hills oilsands facility to mine a part of the lake’s adjoining wetland.

“My grandchildren, they will not be capable to get pleasure from McClelland Lake, they can not say, ‘Look, Granny’s footprints are throughout right here,'” stated Faichney, who lives in and is a member of Fort McKay First Nation. “It’s going to be all gone.”

McClelland Lake in northern Alberta is without delay an vital gathering place for native First Nations, a carbon sink, a wildlife habitat and a serious potential supply of bitumen.

Plans to mine it have been brewing since 2002, when the Alberta Vitality and Utilities Board (a precursor to the Alberta Vitality Regulator) allowed the corporate TrueNorth Vitality to develop a part of the wetland inside its oilsands lease. These plans kicked into excessive gear final fall, when the power regulator gave present proprietor Suncor a inexperienced gentle to maneuver forward with its operational plan.

However permission to mine the McClelland Lake wetland comes with a caveat: The unique 2002 approval hinged on the corporate agreeing to mine solely about half the wetland whereas leaving the opposite half undisturbed.

Suncor says it’ll do that by constructing a wall — almost 14 kilometres lengthy and between 20 and 70 metres deep — to separate the 2 halves, a plan that is grow to be the main target of rising opposition from wilderness advocates and scientists.

Scientists, First Nations advisers involved

It is not simply outdoors observers who’re involved. A few of Suncor’s personal scientific and First Nations advisers have additionally expressed hesitation about how the plan to broaden the multibillion-dollar Fort Hills oilsands challenge is unfolding.

As an elder, Faichney has sat for years on a sustainability committee that advises Suncor on its operational plan, which lays out how the corporate will defend the unmined portion of the wetland. However she stated she stays unconvinced that the plan will work and now needs it to be deserted.

“My choice can be [they] pack up and get out of there,” Faichney informed CBC Information in an interview.

McClelland Lake’s distinctive patterned fen is pictured in an aerial {photograph} taken by the Alberta Wilderness Affiliation in September. (Submitted by Alberta Wilderness Affiliation)

Scientists who advise Suncor’s sustainability committee have additionally raised considerations.

CBC Information has obtained a duplicate of a current presentation made by a technical advisory group for the challenge that expresses concern and frustration with how the corporate will monitor the unmined a part of the wetland and guarantee it is saved protected from the impacts of mining.

Suncor declined an interview with CBC Information whereas the Alberta Vitality Regulator considers a request from a conservation group to rethink the challenge, nevertheless it has stated in correspondence that its plan is predicated on years of session and professional information.

The stakes are excessive for Suncor to maintain the challenge afloat. The Fort Hills oilsands is a serious precedence for the corporate, which just lately spent greater than $1 billion to acquire full possession. The ability, which opened 5 years in the past, is anticipated to have a 50-year lifespan and has capability to supply 194,000 barrels of bitumen per day.

“[Fort Hills] is a key piece of Suncor’s total provide technique,” stated Richard Masson, an Govt Fellow on the College of Calgary’s College of Public Coverage.

‘I do not belief issues will go as deliberate’

The McClelland Lake wetland itself is believed to overlay a couple of billion barrels of oil, in line with paperwork filed with the regulator again in 2002.

It is also a particular place for close by First Nations communities to reap conventional meals and medication. It is a supply of animals for meals — like waterfowl and moose — and fur.

“It is a sacred place that gives the spirituality, connectedness for our First Nations, particularly those that grew up round right here and occupied the world earlier than trade got here in,” stated Jean L’Hommecourt, a standard land use specialist with the Fort McKay sustainability division and a member of Fort McKay First Nation.

A woman wearing a black tuque, glasses and a button-down jacket poses near the edge of a wetland.
Jean L’Hommecourt is proven on the fringe of the McClelland Lake wetland, a spot she says might be irreparably harmed if plans by Suncor to mine a part of the wetland proceed. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

Suncor’s plan — together with what L’Hommecourt calls its “ludicrous plan of a wall” — places that in jeopardy, she stated.

“I do not see any manner you’ll be able to reduce off half of one thing and have the opposite half be made to outlive,” L’Hommecourt stated.

Like Barb Faichney, L’Hommecourt can also be a member of Suncor’s sustainability committee for the plan. However she is fast to level out that her participation doesn’t suggest she endorses it. As a substitute, she sees it as a mandatory step to forestall Suncor from deciphering an absence of engagement as tacit approval.

“If you do not get concerned, they assume that ‘Oh, they do not care, they do not say something,’ and so they take it as a ‘Sure, go forward,'” L’Hommecourt stated.

Previous issues within the oilsands, similar to tailings pond leaks, do not give L’Hommecourt confidence in regards to the trade’s skill to guard the atmosphere.

“I do not belief that issues will go as deliberate as a result of there’s at all times human error, there’s know-how that messes up issues, and typically you discover out too late,” she stated.

Faichney agreed: “I would like them to go away, go away it alone,” she stated.

‘Insufficient’ understanding of reference websites

A gaggle of scientists that gives technical recommendation to Suncor’s sustainability committee has additionally expressed hesitation about how the corporate’s plan is being applied.

CBC Information has obtained a duplicate of an October PowerPoint presentation that was made by the committee’s technical advisory group, whose backgrounds embody wetland hydrogeology, ecology and aquatic chemistry.

In it, the group notes that reference websites and background knowledge within the operational plan are “nonetheless insufficient.” With no stable understanding of reference ecosystems, it says, it will likely be tough to know if future adjustments to McClelland are the results of mining or different elements, similar to climate variability or local weather change.

“TAG [technical advisory group] considers the dearth of monitoring and analysis of reference ecosystems to be the gravest omission from the Operational Plan,” reads an excerpt from the PowerPoint.

The McClelland Lake and its surrounding fen.
McClelland Lake, proven in an aerial picture shot by the Alberta Wilderness Affiliation, is without delay an vital gathering place for native First Nations, a carbon sink, a wildlife habitat and a serious potential supply of bitumen. (Submitted by Phillip Meintzer)

The slide decks additionally level out that whereas wildlife is of key worth for close by First Nations, there was “no progress on monitoring or understanding” and that with regards to water-quality modelling, “conceptual and numerical fashions are incomplete.”

CBC Information reached out to the scientists listed as a part of Suncor’s technical advisory group, however none agreed to an interview.

“It was very apparent that there was a substantial diploma of frustration being felt by the technical advisory group,” stated Richard Lindsay, head of environmental and conservation analysis within the Sustainability Analysis Institute of the College of East London.

Lindsay, a specialist within the ecology and conservation of peatland ecosystems, has written to the Alberta Vitality Regulator asking it to rethink Suncor’s operational plan. Whereas Lindsay will not be a part of the technical advisory group, he agreed to overview the PowerPoint and supply his opinion.

WATCH | The significance of McClelland Lake:

Why McClelland Lake issues

Featured VideoElder Barb Faichney explains why she is so involved about improvement encroaching on the McClelland Lake wetland advanced.

He stated the position of this group is to make sure that Suncor meets the requirement set out by the power regulator: to mine solely a part of the wetland and go away the opposite half undisturbed.

“The purpose in regards to the technical advisory group is that they’re there to information Suncor in attaining the very best end result,” he stated. “If Suncor ignores the recommendation of the TAG, what is the level of the TAG?”

Alberta Vitality Regulator re-examining challenge

For now, the way forward for the McClelland Lake wetland challenge stays within the palms of the Alberta Vitality Regulator. It is mulling whether or not to rethink its approval of the Suncor operational plan after receiving a essential report within the spring from the Alberta Wilderness Affiliation (AWA).

That report, based mostly on analysis commissioned by the AWA, flagged numerous considerations with Suncor’s plan, starting from the chance of saltwater mixing with groundwater to what it described as a “very poor” plan for resupplying water to the unmined wetland.

“It comes throughout to us as only a massive experiment,” stated Phillip Meintzer, a conservation specialist with the affiliation.

A man with a moustache and a blue button-down shirt is pictured with his arms folded inside a library.
Phillip Meintzer is a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Affiliation, which supplied a report back to the Alberta Vitality Regulator that flagged numerous considerations with Suncor’s plan — prompting the regulator to re-examine the challenge. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

The AWA is invested within the McClelland Lake wetland as a result of it is an vital carbon sink, Meintzer stated, and a pure water filtration system.

Throughout forest fireplace season, this sort of spongy wetland can sluggish the progress of encroaching flames, he stated, and it is also an vital space for wildlife. It is utilized by about 200 species of birds and is a protected place for them to land in an space surrounded by tailings ponds.

“We threat dropping so much,” Meintzer stated. “Even when half of this space is destroyed, we nonetheless lose so much.”

Suncor disputes objections

In correspondence to the province’s power regulator, Suncor has disputed the objections raised by the Alberta Wilderness Affiliation, saying these considerations are based mostly on false assumptions, are unsupported by proof or in any other case reveal a lack of information.

Suncor has additionally stated cut-off partitions have been generally utilized by trade prior to now to govern groundwater flows or act as a barrier to groundwater. It additionally famous it isn’t unusual for these cut-off partitions for use in live performance with different options like pumping and injection wells.

The edge of the McClelland Lake wetland is pictured in October 2023.
The McClelland Lake wetland is a carbon sink and an vital device for mitigating the consequences of local weather change, in line with the Alberta Wilderness Affiliation. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

The corporate pointed to a bentonite cut-off wall constructed on the Suncor Base Plant south tailings pond in 2008 for instance, which might be used to tell design of the wall used within the McClelland Lake wetland.

If the power regulator agrees to rethink the challenge, Suncor stated it could be taking part in into the palms of trade opponents and set a precedent that will hurt useful resource improvement in Alberta.

The College of Calgary’s Richard Masson will not be concerned within the challenge however stated it is vital to contemplate that useful resource improvement additionally brings about monetary and job advantages for employees, contractors and governments.

In a press release, a spokesperson for the Alberta Vitality Regulator stated it is reviewing submissions from each Suncor and the AWA and could not estimate when a call can be reached in regards to the challenge.

As for Faichney and L’Hommecourt, they plan to remain on the committee till the tip — however are hoping that finish will come sooner moderately than later.

“My greatest hope is that AER will come to their senses and say, ‘No, this challenge will not be viable,'” L’Hommecourt stated.

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