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Suncor plans to pump 1 billion barrels of oil from a wetland — but vows to protect the other half with a wall

A plan by oilsands giant Suncor to mine part of a northern Alberta wetland has been criticized by scientists and environmentalists. But CBC News has learned that some of the company's own advisory committee members have also flagged concerns about the project.

Oilsands giant Suncor wants to cut wetland in two, separated by a 14-km-long wall

A woman with dark brown hair and glasses, wearing a black hoodie and orange t-shirt, sits at her kitchen table holding a family photograph.

When Elder Barb Faichney flips through family photos, McClelland Lake is a recurring theme. Her family's trapline skirts the banks of the lake north of Fort McMurray, Alta., which has long been a special place for them to hunt, trap and gather.

This may not be the case for future generations, she said, if energy giant Suncor moves ahead with a plan to expand its Fort Hills oilsands facility to mine part of the lake's adjacent wetland.

"My grandchildren, they won't be able to enjoy McClelland Lake, they can't say, 'Look, Granny's footprints are all over here,'" said Faichney, who lives in and is a member of Fort McKay First Nation. "It'll be all gone."

McClelland Lake in northern Alberta is at once an important gathering place for local First Nations, a carbon sink, a wildlife habitat and a major potential source of bitumen.

Plans to mine it have been brewing since 2002, when the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (a precursor to the Alberta Energy Regulator) allowed the company TrueNorth Energy to develop part of the wetland within its oilsands lease. Those plans kicked into high gear last fall, when the energy regulator gave current owner Suncor a green light to move ahead with its operational plan.

But permission to mine the McClelland Lake wetland comes with a caveat: The original 2002 approval hinged on the company agreeing to mine only about half the wetland while leaving the other half undisturbed.

Suncor says it will do this by building a wall — nearly 14 kilometres long and between 20 and 70 metres deep — to separate the two halves, a plan that's become the focus of growing opposition from wilderness advocates and scientists.

Scientists, First Nations advisers concerned

It's not just outside observers who are concerned. Some of Suncor's own scientific and First Nations advisers have also expressed hesitation about how the plan to expand the multibillion-dollar Fort Hills oilsands project is unfolding.

As an elder, Faichney has sat for years on a sustainability committee that advises Suncor on its operational plan, which lays out how the company will protect the unmined portion of the wetland. But she said she remains unconvinced that the plan will work and now wants it to be abandoned.

"My preference would be [they] pack up and get out of there," Faichney told CBC News in an interview.

An aerial photograph shows the distinctive patterned fen at McClelland Lake.

Scientists who advise Suncor's sustainability committee have also raised concerns.

CBC News has obtained a copy of a recent presentation made by a technical advisory group for the project that expresses concern and frustration with how the company will monitor the unmined part of the wetland and ensure it's kept safe from the impacts of mining.

Suncor declined an interview with CBC News while the Alberta Energy Regulator considers a request from a conservation group to reconsider the project, but it has said in correspondence that its plan is based on years of consultation and expert knowledge.

The stakes are high for Suncor to keep the project afloat. The Fort Hills oilsands is a major priority for the company, which recently spent more than $1 billion to obtain full ownership. The facility, which opened five years ago, is expected to have a 50-year lifespan and has capacity to produce 194,000 barrels of bitumen per day.

"[Fort Hills] is a key piece of Suncor's overall supply strategy," said Richard Masson, an Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy.

'I don't trust things will go as planned'

The McClelland Lake wetland itself is believed to overlay about a billion barrels of oil, according to documents filed with the regulator back in 2002.

It's also a special place for nearby First Nations communities to harvest traditional food and medicine. It's a source of animals for food — like waterfowl and moose — and fur.

"It's a sacred place that provides the spirituality, connectedness for our First Nations, especially the ones that grew up around here and occupied the area before industry came in," said Jean L'Hommecourt, a traditional land use specialist with the Fort McKay sustainability department and a member of Fort McKay First Nation.

A woman wearing a black tuque, glasses and a button-down jacket poses near the edge of a wetland.

Suncor's plan — including what L'Hommecourt calls its "ludicrous plan of a wall" — puts that in jeopardy, she said.

"I don't see any way you can cut off half of something and have the other half be made to survive," L'Hommecourt said.

Like Barb Faichney, L'Hommecourt is also a member of Suncor's sustainability committee for the plan. But she is quick to point out that her participation doesn't mean she endorses it. Instead, she sees it as a necessary step to prevent Suncor from interpreting a lack of engagement as tacit approval.

"If you don't get involved, they think that 'Oh, they don't care, they don't say anything,' and they take it as a 'Yes, go ahead,'" L'Hommecourt said.

Past problems in the oilsands, such as tailings pond leaks, don't give L'Hommecourt confidence about the industry's ability to protect the environment.

"I don't trust that things will go as planned because there's always human error, there's technology that messes up things, and sometimes you find out too late," she said.

Faichney agreed: "I'd like them to go away, leave it alone," she said.

'Inadequate' understanding of reference sites

A group of scientists that provides technical advice to Suncor's sustainability committee has also expressed hesitation about how the company's plan is being implemented.

CBC News has obtained a copy of an October PowerPoint presentation that was made by the committee's technical advisory group, whose backgrounds include wetland hydrogeology, ecology and aquatic chemistry.

In it, the group notes that reference sites and background data in the operational plan are "still inadequate." Without a solid understanding of reference ecosystems, it says, it will be difficult to understand if future changes to McClelland are the result of mining or other factors, such as weather variability or climate change.

"TAG [technical advisory group] considers the lack of monitoring and evaluation of reference ecosystems to be the gravest omission from the Operational Plan," reads an excerpt from the PowerPoint.

The McClelland Lake and its surrounding fen.

The slide decks also point out that while wildlife is of key value for nearby First Nations, there has been "no progress on monitoring or understanding" and that when it comes to water-quality modelling, "conceptual and numerical models are incomplete."

CBC News reached out to the scientists listed as part of Suncor's technical advisory group, but none agreed to an interview.

"It was very obvious that there was a considerable degree of frustration being felt by the technical advisory group," said Richard Lindsay, head of environmental and conservation research in the Sustainability Research Institute of the University of East London.

Lindsay, a specialist in the ecology and conservation of peatland ecosystems, has written to the Alberta Energy Regulator asking it to reconsider Suncor's operational plan. While Lindsay is not part of the technical advisory group, he agreed to review the PowerPoint and offer his opinion.

WATCH | The importance of McClelland Lake:

Why McClelland Lake matters

1 day ago

Duration 0:45

Featured VideoElder Barb Faichney explains why she is so concerned about development encroaching on the McClelland Lake wetland complex.

He said the role of this group is to ensure that Suncor meets the requirement set out by the energy regulator: to mine only part of the wetland and leave the other half undisturbed.

"The point about the technical advisory group is that they are there to guide Suncor in achieving the best possible outcome," he said. "If Suncor ignores the advice of the TAG, what's the point of the TAG?"

Alberta Energy Regulator re-examining project

For now, the future of the McClelland Lake wetland project remains in the hands of the Alberta Energy Regulator. It's mulling whether to reconsider its approval of the Suncor operational plan after receiving a critical report in the spring from the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA).

That report, based on research commissioned by the AWA, flagged a number of concerns with Suncor's plan, ranging from the risk of saltwater mixing with groundwater to what it described as a "very poor" plan for resupplying water to the unmined wetland.

"It comes across to us as just a big experiment," said Phillip Meintzer, a conservation specialist with the association.

A man with a moustache and a blue button-down shirt is pictured with his arms folded inside a library.

The AWA is invested in the McClelland Lake wetland because it's an important carbon sink, Meintzer said, and a natural water filtration system.

During forest fire season, this type of spongy wetland can slow the progress of encroaching flames, he said, and it's also an important area for wildlife. It's used by about 200 species of birds and is a safe place for them to land in an area surrounded by tailings ponds.

"We risk losing a lot," Meintzer said. "Even if half of this area is destroyed, we still lose a lot."

Suncor disputes objections

In correspondence to the province's energy regulator, Suncor has disputed the objections raised by the Alberta Wilderness Association, saying these concerns are based on false assumptions, are unsupported by evidence or otherwise demonstrate a lack of expertise.

Suncor has also said cut-off walls have been commonly used by industry in the past to manipulate groundwater flows or act as a barrier to groundwater. It also noted it's not uncommon for these cut-off walls to be used in concert with other features like pumping and injection wells.

The edge of the McClelland Lake wetland is pictured in October 2023.

The company pointed to a bentonite cut-off wall built at the Suncor Base Plant south tailings pond in 2008 as an example, which will be used to inform design of the wall used in the McClelland Lake wetland.

If the energy regulator agrees to reconsider the project, Suncor said it would be playing into the hands of industry opponents and set a precedent that would harm resource development in Alberta.

The University of Calgary's Richard Masson is not involved in the project but said it's important to consider that resource development also brings about financial and job benefits for workers, contractors and governments.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Alberta Energy Regulator said it's reviewing submissions from both Suncor and the AWA and couldn't estimate when a decision would be reached about the project.

As for Faichney and L'Hommecourt, they plan to stay on the committee until the end — but are hoping that end will come sooner rather than later.

"My biggest hope is that AER will come to their senses and say, 'No, this project is not viable,'" L'Hommecourt said.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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