The federal government removed some oil sands projects from a list of those requiring environmental screenings, after being told in an internal memorandum that this form of industrial development could disturb water sources and harm fish habitat. The memo to the deputy minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, dated May 5, 2011, came a year before Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government introduced hundreds of pages of changes to Canada’s environmental laws, which will allow the government to exclude some oil sands projects from reviews.
In total, the changes eliminated about 3,000 federal environmental assessments, including hundreds of evaluations of projects involving fossil fuels and pipeline development, once the laws were adopted in July 2012. Ministers in Harper’s government said this would reduce unnecessary delays and focus federal resources on investigating projects with the greatest potential impacts on the environment.
Expansion of conventional oil sands mines, which use large amounts of water and energy to extract the heavy oil, still require federal assessments even under changes proposed by the federal government.
The internal memorandum suggested that some in-situ oil sands projects, involving the injection of steam deep underground to extract heavy oil from Alberta’s natural bitumen deposits, also required reviews and authorizations because of threats to the water supply and fish habitat.
The memo said the department was previously monitoring the impact of new road construction at the sites on fish habitat, but had “recently” noticed the additional threats to water from in-situ projects. This form of oil sands development, expected to be the main source of industry expansion in the future, is not on a new proposed list of projects requiring federal environmental evaluations.
“Steam injection operations have the potential to cause surface upheaval and groundwater extraction operations may impact groundwater-surface water interactions,” said the memo, signed by David Balfour, a senior assistant deputy minister, and accepted by Claire Dansereau, the deputy minister. “This could result in reductions in surface water flows in watercourses, leading to potential impacts on fish habitat.”
The Fisheries Act previously allowed for the minister to issue an authorization, allowing industrial developers to disrupt fish habitat, provided that they compensate with other measures to protect ecosystems.
The new laws adopted in July, removed a requirement for some authorizations, shifting the focus instead to the protection of commercial, recreational or aboriginal fisheries.
The memo, obtained using access to information legislation, also included a background document, dated March 30, 2011, that challenged statements, proposed by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and “based on the advice from experts in Alberta and Natural Resources Canada” that there was “little possibility” of in-situ oil sands operations disrupting fish habitat.
“This statement should be deleted from the document since it is not an accurate reflection of (the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s) position with respect to our regulatory review of in-situ projects,” said a comment inserted by the department. “DFO anticipates that in some higher risk areas the issuance of a Fisheries Act authorization may be necessary for impacts to fish habitat associated with groundwater disturbance activity as a result of in-situ operations.”
Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada who obtained the memo, said the document suggests the federal government is not meeting its constitutional responsibilities to protect the rights and way of life of First Nations.
“It looks to me like the government ignored the advice of its scientists,” Stewart said. “It’s an issue that First Nations have been raising for a long time, and I’ve never seen it confirmed by the federal government as a problem, before now.”
When asked for comment, Greg Stringham, the vice-president of an industry lobby group — the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — emailed Postmedia News a statement saying that environmental standards were not compromised by recent federal reforms, noting that in-situ projects were subject to “rigorous” provincial reviews in Alberta.
Alberta’s Environment Department emailed a similar statement stating that projects were only approved after ensuring they were using the best technology and meeting strict standards to reduce impacts.
“We know that industrial development has impacts,” wrote spokesman Trevor Gemmell. “That is why all industrial activities are subject to environmental regulations in Alberta, and large projects require a stringent environmental assessment.”
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, Natural Resources Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were not immediately able to answer questions from Postmedia News about the memo.
Environment Canada told Postmedia News it was not the lead department on the issue.
Source: Financial Post