EDMONTON – Aboriginal groups near the oilsands are half-heartedly cheering a federal government decision to delay a ruling on whether an environmentally controversial mine project can go ahead.
Ottawa was supposed to decide by Wednesday on the fate of Shell Canada’s huge Jackpine oilsands expansion in northern Alberta, but a one-sentence notice posted on a government website says the ruling has been delayed 35 days until Dec. 11.
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation had asked for a 90-day delay.
“These are calendar days, not even business days,” band spokeswoman Eriel Deranger said Friday. “There’s no way we can address all the issues.”
Still, the band hopes to use the time to meet with Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
Deranger said Aglukkaq has already turned down three requests for a meeting.
The Jackpine expansion would allow Shell to increase its bitumen output by 50 per cent to 300,000 barrels a day.
A review panel concluded last July that the project was in the public interest. But the panel also warned that it would result in severe and irreversible damage so great that new protected areas should be created to compensate.
Deranger said the band has received no indication of how the damage is to be mitigated or whether the First Nation’s concerns will be met.
“We’re looking for what are they actually going to do to mitigate those impacts.”
The band believes the project, as proposed, will violate several federal laws covering fisheries and species at risk, as well as treaty rights, Deranger said.
“Our hope is that we can figure out what the justification is for this and what they’re going to do to mitigate those impacts with our nation.”
A Shell spokesman said the company is prepared to wait out the delay and work with both sides.
“We respect the recommendations given following the public hearing from the Joint Review Panel,” said Stephen Doolan.
“Shell will continue to work hard and be part of the process with regulators, First Nations and communities. We await the final federal decision.”
The Jackpine review concluded that the project would mean the permanent loss of thousands of hectares of wetlands, which would harm migratory birds, caribou and other wildlife and wipe out traditional plants used for generations. It also said Shell’s plans for mitigation are unproven and warned that some impacts would probably approach levels that the environment couldn’t support.
Shell has said Alberta’s new management plan for the oilsands area will provide more concrete data to assess and mitigate environmental impacts. The company has purchased about 730 hectares of former cattle pasture in northwestern Alberta to help compensate for the 8,500 hectares of wetland that would be forever lost.