Oilsands expansion raises red flags for regulators – by Gilliam Steward (Toronto Star – July 30, 2013)

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Regulators increasingly want governments to take more responsibility for oilsands projects and their consequences.

The proposed west-east oil pipeline is inching closer to reality. Last week the premiers discussed the feasibility of such a huge project at their annual get-together. And TransCanada Energy confirmed that it has already signed up major producers who want bitumen from the Alberta oilsands delivered to refineries as far afield as New Brunswick and possibly for export.

Meanwhile in Alberta, for the first time regulators have raised alarming red flags about the environmental impact of oilsands expansion and urged the federal and Alberta governments to step up their oversight of these enormous operations.

The strong words of warning came in a decision by a joint federal/provincial panel established to review an application by Shell Canada for expansion of its Jackpine bitumen mining operation about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

The proposal would increase production by a third to 300,000 barrels a day; tarry oil that needs the increased pipeline capacity that an east-west pipeline would provide if it is to reach refineries.

The joint review panel established by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency gave Shell’s expansion project the green light on the grounds that the economic benefits for Alberta and the rest of Canada outweigh the environmental and social impacts.

But the three panel members who conducted a month of public hearings as well as other investigations into the project were very specific about the damage it would cause.

They found “that the project would likely have significant adverse environmental effects on wetlands, traditional plant potential areas, wetland-reliant species at risk, migratory birds that are wetland-reliant or species at risk, and biodiversity.”

The review panel also concluded that Shell had not proposed effective measures to lessen any of these impacts.

Not content with simply looking at the impacts of Shell’s expansion, the panel also considered the big picture and concluded that the cumulative effects of existing, approved and planned projects would also significantly impact old-growth forest-reliant species at risk, caribou, and the rights and culture of aboriginal peoples in the region.

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