News Articles | Fort McMurray Today | Carol Christian | July 28, 2010
Environmentalists are telling the government hands off when it comes to a local heritage river.
But Nexen Inc. says its application to withdraw water from the Clearwater River falls within the Clearwater-Christian Rivers Management Plan guidelines for Canadian Heritage Rivers.
The company has applied to Alberta Environment for regulatory approval to withdraw up to an average of 17,000 cubic metres a day of water from the Clearwater River about 14 kilometres east of Fort McMurray for its Long Lake project.
The withdrawal application to support approved future upgrading was filed in April, and Albertans have until Aug. 5 to submit statements of concern with Alberta Environment.
“Never before has surface water been used for a SAGD project. We’re constantly told how environmentally friendly SAGD or in-situ is. I’m really questioning that at this point,” said Ruth Kleinbub of the Clearwater Heritage River Society. She re-submitted the society’s concerns to the province last week as its submission in May was too early.
“The water application process that is run by the province is very rigorous very thorough, involves public input,” said Pierre Alvarez, Nexen’s vice-president of corporate relations. He added the application was made after years of study and lessons learned from two and a half years of operating Long Lake. “We think that we have found a way to process to support the upgraders which is going to have a lower overall environmental footprint that meets the requirements of the Heritage River’s plan and that we believe supports the goals of the province of comprehensively lowering our environmental footprint while adding value to the resources in the province.”
That public input included consultations with 40 groups before the application was filed and a series of open houses in May.
“We’re the only SAGD integrated facility in the country,” said Alvarez. “We have learned an awful lot about what it takes. Have we changed our plans? Yes we have adjusted our plans, but we’ve done so to maximize the efficiency of the operation which in turn minimizes the footprint.”
He added that after the consultation, Nexen revamped its plans, for example, to move the water pumping station to more than 200 metres back from the river because of some of the concerns raised.
Using other options to the Clearwater would have required extensive piping, increasing the footprint.
He explained the amount Nexen has applied to withdraw is about .2%, essentially two barrels of water of every thousand barrels which flows by the facility.
“We welcome input which is why we consulted early. We appreciate the public’s interest in the water issues. We think it’s an important conversation and we’re happy to engage with it, but we want it to take place based on the facts,” said Alvarez.
Though this is the first such oilsands application for withdrawal, Alberta Environment spokeswoman Jessica Potter said the Nexen request won’t set a precedent because each application is considered individually
“We take into account cumulatively what’s going on in the area.”
She added that just because one use, such as SAGD, may already exist, it doesn’t automatically mean a successive project will be allowed.
“Each application is reviewed independently.”
That’s cold comfort for Kleinbub who wondered “when have they ever said no to an oil project?”
Kleinbub and her fellow society members want the
government to reject the application not only because of its impacts to a heritage river, but also because it’s contradictory to the original project application to the Energy Resources Conservation Board.
For its original application, according to a society statement, Nexen stated in its environmental impact assessment that the project would “use any water from the river or lakes in the area,” but would use “water from deep wells that is not suitable for human consumption for making the steam used for bitumen recovery.”
The Clearwater application is with Alberta Environment because it is responsible for water licensing.
“It’s just saving us a little ribbon of green that is really precious to this area and to our history. And I think that is probably the really important part,” said Kleinbub. “I think it’s time the government sort of says ‘OK. Enough is enough.’
“We’re hoping desperately that they do.”
While the society acknowledges it would cost more if Nexen used water from the Athabasca River which is further away “but what is the cost of preserving a heritage river in this province?” she wondered. Thanks to the multi-sector committee that came together in the mid 1990s, the Clearwater as designated a heritage river around 2004.
“It was very multi-faceted and everybody had a stake in the river,” Kleinbub recalled.
Those members included land owners, snowmobilers, outfitters and recreational users such as canoeists, she recalled. The management plan was written by consensus, taking a number of years in a process that saw parties come to understand everyone else’s point of view.
“In the end, we came up with this great product which is the management plan for the river to try to preserve this historical and the pristine values that are part of that river.
“It’s not just our committee … there are other people that are very concerned. ... It’s just another nail in the coffin of dirty oil.”
She countered Alvarez’s statement that industrial use is allowed under the rules saying “no there isn’t. It’s commercial use and certainly, they’ve taken it out of context.”
With Dunvegan Gardens using the river for irrigation, Vista Ridge for snowmaking and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo has four licences including irrigation for Miskinaw Golf Course at Macdonald Island and to cut aquatic vegetation and dredging material from the Snye channel. Kleinbub said these are commercial uses and they aren’t near the volumes Nexen is proposing.
“Nexen has pulled a bait and switch,” said Cleo Reece of the Keepers of the Athabasca and member of the Fort McMurray First Nation.
“Alberta Environment needs to turn down the application because Nexen is telling one story to get its initial approval and a different one to allow it to get out of its original promises.” Joe Obad, associate director of Water Matters added that instead of taking out ads in Washington, the province would do better to back up its regulators here at home and reject Nexen’s bait and switch.
“By turning down this application, Alberta Environment can meet its commitmentto safeguard a Heritage River and send a strong message to industry: avoiding public scrutiny of true environmental impacts and switching stories between regulators won’t be tolerated in Alberta,” said Obad.