By Lloyd Dolha
The largest First Nations community at the centre of the booming oil sands development in the Fort McMurray area has withdrawn from the organization set up to protect the environment from too much development.
Government and industry are not taking the protection of the environment seriously, said Sherwin Sheh, spokesperson for the Mikisew Cree of Fort Chipewyan.
The provincial and federal governments created the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) to watch over oil sands development and determine how many mines and upgrading plants can be allowed before the environment is permanently affected.
CEMA was supposed to have answered that question two years ago, but despite seven years of meetings and studies, it still hasn’t made that determination.
There is no point in sitting around talking about big environmental issues while oil sands projects are constantly approved by the Alberta Energy and utilities Board, Sheh said.
“CEMA is a parking lot where everything, all the major issues, are placed there,” said Sheh. “Meanwhile, approvals are given.”
Sheh said staying at the table gives CEMA legitimacy as an organization actually doing something to protect the environment.
He hopes withdrawing from the association will force governments to consult directly with First Nations on environmental issues.
The First Nation is the scond to pull out of CEMA, following the lead of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), of Fort McMurray.
Elders from the ACFN, the Mikisew Cree and the Pembina Institute, have already declared Alberta’s approach to water management of the Athabasca River a failure. The Water Management Framework, released March 1st, allows the oil sands industry to withdraw water from the Athabasca River, one of North America’s longest undamned rivers, even when its at risk of significant ecological impacts due to low water flows.
“We’re talking about the survival of the Athabasca River, but more than this is the survival of our people,” said Pat Marcel, chair of the ACFN Denesuline Traditional Environmental Knowledge Elders Committee. “The governments of Alberta and Canada are failing us and need to be held accountable.”
During the winter months, the Athabasca River’s flows are naturally lower, but oil sands water withdrawals push down flows to levels that severely impact the river’s fish populations.
First Nations groups continue to use the Athabasca river’s fishery for both subsistence and commercial fishing, and are demanding that the fishery be protected.
The Alberta government’s framework uses a graduated approach to managing water withdrawals based on flows in the river. Of most importance is the “red zone,” in which river flows are at their lowest and industry withdrawals threaten the ecological sustainability of the river. The framework still allows industry to collectively withdraw between 8 and 15 cubic metres of water per second.
The use of water by the oil sand developments already accounts for 65 per cent of withdrawals from the river and are licensed to withdraw about 349 million cubic metres of water per year, more than twice the volume required from the Bow River for the city of Calgary’s domestic use.
“The government’s framework misleads Albertans and Canadians because it does not require industry to turn off its pumps when the river hits the red zone,” says Dan Woynillowicz, of the Pembina Institute.
The framework pledges to continue to conduct scientific research and monitoring and a review of its findings by September 2010. It identifies CEMA as the likely organization to undertake this work, despite widespread acknowledgment that CEMA is a largely ineffective organization that has continually failed to meet its deadlines.
“The Mikisew Cree First Nation rejects the new framework because it follows the exact same management approach we rejected in July 2006,” said Melody Lepine, director of the Mikisew Cree First Nation/Industry Relations Corporation. “We expressed our concerns on the framework in three major Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (AEUB), hearings last year, and still the government has failed to meet our expectations for protecting the Athabasca River. Our First Nation has left CEMA because it is so dysfunctional. We don’t see how the government can rely on CEMA to get the job done given its poor track record.”
All three groups are calling on the Alberta government to immediately establish a limit that forces the industry to stop withdrawing water when the river is threatened, and are exploring legal and other actions.