Aboriginal support of oil sands fracturing over water

Alberta band quits environment group

PATRICK BRETHOUR

CALGARY -- Aboriginal support for Alberta's oil sands boom is fracturing, as concerns mount that the escalating water needs of the sector will imperil the Athabasca River -- and aboriginal fisheries.

The Athabasca Chipewyan, who live about 200 kilometres downstream from the epicentre of the oil sands sector, yesterday withdrew from an environmental group set up seven years ago to come up with strategies for the sustainable development of the province's bitumen resources.

The withdrawal means that both of the aboriginal bands downstream from the oil sands are now publicly voicing opposition to the quickening pace of development of the massive industrial projects, a big problem for an industry that has always courted aboriginal support.

Earlier this month, the Mikisew Cree said they would formally oppose Imperial Oil Ltd.'s Kearl project in October regulatory hearings because of their concern over the entire industry's use of water. That band, which won a recent Supreme Court victory over land use, has warned that it could eventually sue over the issue. It is unclear whether an aboriginal band could prevail in a legal fight, but the Supreme Court did say in the Mikisew decision that non-aboriginal governments have a duty to conduct "meaningful consultations on industrial development that could affect treaty rights."

For years, aboriginal bands such as the Athabasca Chipewyan have backed the oil sands, with their members working on projects and their officials participating in planning bodies.

But that backing is breaking, weighed down by concern about proposed provincial regulations that could increase the amount of water that the oil sands can withdraw from the Athabasca River during periods of low flow.

The Athabasca flows into Lake Athabasca, where the Athabasca Chipewyan and the Mikisew Cree live, hunt and fish. A hydroelectric project in British Columbia has already impaired water flows, and the demand from the oil sands is making the situation worse, the bands believe. "We're experiencing the lowest water level in my life and I'm 68 years old," said Pat Marcel, an elder with the Athabasca Chipewyan.

He yesterday gave formal notice that his band is withdrawing from the Cumulative Environmental Management Association, a body made up of industry, government, aboriginal and other representatives. Mr. Marcel said CEMA was being ignored by the provincial government, and that his band did not want to participate in a process that had no influence. "I don't think they're serious about taking our advice," he said, adding that the industry should realize that his band will now consider other avenues to voice its opposition. "This is definitely got to be a warning sign."

Aboriginal support of the oil sands is "critical," acknowledged Greg Stringham, a vice-president at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Mr. Stringham said he hopes that further research into the water flow issue will convince aboriginal groups such as the Athabasca Chipewyan that the industry's use does not threaten the watershed. But he said there are accommodations that the oil sands could make to reduce the use of water during periods of low flow, including filling reservoirs during peak periods.

Alberta's Environment Ministry said it is possible that industry might face such a requirement eventually, but that more study is needed to determine if stockpiling is necessary. Spokeswoman Kim Hunt said such reservoirs would carry their own environmental issues, since their construction would involve flooding land.

Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.