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article imageInterview: Simon Dyer of Pembina Institute on oilsands hearing Special

By Grace C. Visconti     Oct 6, 2013 in Environment
Calgary - This is an Interview with Simon Dyer, Policy Director, Pembina Institute, about an attempt by the Government of Alberta to ban the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition from an oilsands hearing. Justice Richard Marceau overturned the “biased” request.
Simon Dyer, Policy Director of the Pembina Institute Bio:
Simon Dyer is the Policy Director at Pembina Institute, and former director of the Institute's oilsands program. A registered professional biologist, Simon has worked on natural resource management issues in western Canada since 1999. Simon holds a Master of Science in environmental biology and ecology from the University of Alberta, and a Master of Arts in natural sciences from the University of Cambridge. Simon lives and works in a small town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with his wife Arin and two children. He came to Canada from the U.K. to attend graduate school, and after getting hooked on backpacking, he decided to stay.
Simon is the co-author of over 20 Pembina Institute publications and has represented Pembina Institute at many regulatory and parliamentary hearings and multi-stakeholder processes.
In September 2013, the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition (OSEC) comprised of the Fort McMurray Environmental Association and the Pembina Institute, challenged the Government of Alberta’s ruling about a proposed mine operated by the Southern Pacific Resource Corporation. The statement that they were not directly affected by this project was unjust considering their concerns for the northern Alberta communities in the proposed production area.
OSEC was attempting to argue that since the project would be built along the MacKay River, it would require up to 1.7 million litres of fresh groundwater daily, creating compromised air and water quality in the Wood Buffalo region, as well as threatening the caribou, a species environmental groups have vowed to protect from becoming extinct.
On Tuesday October 1, 2013, an Edmonton judge halted a provincial decision to bar environmentalists from participating in this oilsands hearing stating that the original ruling was biased. Justice Richard Marceau of the Court of Queen’s Bench in his written judgement released on Tuesday October 1 said, “It is difficult to envision a more direct apprehension of bias. The director’s decision breaches all four principles of natural justice.” The briefing also contradicted policies that are supposed to encourage public participation in the oilsands regulatory process. On Wednesday October 2, the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition celebrated the recent judgement.
GCV: Can you briefly describe what led up to this conflict with the Government of Alberta?
SD: The Oil Sands Environmental Coalition (OSEC) that includes Pembina and local residents and environmental organizations submitted a statement of concern with respect to Southern Pacific Corporation’s application to construct and operate a steam-assisted gravity drainage oilsands project on the MacKay River. Our statement was rejected. We found this surprising, so appealed the decision and won when the Judge quashed Alberta's decision to reject our statement.
GCV: What concerned the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition about this particular project in the Wood Buffalo region and how did you present your concerns?
SD: The proposed Southern Pacific Resource Corporation in situ oilsands project would require up to 1.7 million litres of fresh groundwater every day and contribute to declining regional air quality. Further, the project would be located in the habitat of a declining caribou herd where disturbance already exceeds the threshold identified in the Federal Recovery Strategy for woodland caribou. The regulatory process and a hearing are the only means for those who are concerned about the potential impacts of the proposed project to raise those concerns with decision makers. Government of Alberta decided not to allow Pembina to participate in the regulatory review process – and we appealed the decision, arguing the government broke provincial rules for public participation in the review of energy projects.
GCV: How is this a victory for democracy, environmental integrity, and maintaining public participation during the regulatory process of oilsands hearings in the future?
SD: The Judge found that the Alberta government has failed to honour already restrictive provincial rules limiting participation in the energy regulatory process. In a strongly worded decision, Pembina’s evidence and expert testimony at previous oilsands environmental hearings has resulted in better decision making, stronger operating conditions for oilsands companies and higher standards of environmental protection.

 At a time when evidence is mounting that cumulative environmental impacts from oilsands are exceeding regional thresholds it’s essential that directly affected stakeholders with credible information get a fair hearing. Albertans have a right to a fair oilsands regulatory process including the right to be heard and raise concerns about oilsands development.
GCV: Has transparency been a problem in the past thereby causing a rift in the present between public support and corporate interests? Do you think this rift can ever be bridged?
SD: What was interesting in this case was the discovery of a government briefing note that suggested Pembina was rejected for reasons concerning our work communicating problems with oilsands environmental management, rather than the rules that govern public participation.
GCV: How has the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition influenced the relationship between public perception, corporations, and the Government of Alberta?
SD: The Oil Sands Environmental Coalition exists to provide scientific evidence to regulators and the public regarding the environmental impacts of oilsands development. In this role, the Coalition has provided evidence and filed Statements of Concern to ensure the impacts of oilsands development are fully understood and addressed by government regulators. We have had recommendations we’ve made incorporated into project decisions and helped achieve better environmental outcomes and higher standards for Albertans.
GCV: Why has alternative energy been put on the backburner in this province when other countries are exploring alternative energy sources? Is there a chance that Alberta will be left behind in this regard if they stay focus on developing and investing in oilsands production?
SD: The clean technology sector has emerged as a major driver of innovation and employment growth in Canada. Analytica Advisors estimates that, as this industry grows to a projected $3 trillion by 2020, Canadian cleantech companies have the potential to increase their market share from today’s $9 billion to $60 billion, even though Canada currently captures just one per cent of today's $1 trillion global cleantech market. Canada currently places fifth for clean energy inventions, with its companies securing only two per cent of clean energy patents granted in the United States since 2002.
Alberta is developing a Renewable and Alternative Energy Framework that we hope will incent more clean energy production in Alberta, though we have yet to see details.
GCV: How can the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition be a bridge for a new energy future in Alberta while bringing awareness to the public of current environmental degradation and species extinction due to oilsands production?
SD: The Oil Sands Environmental Coalition exists to provide scientific evidence to regulators and the public regarding the environmental impacts of oilsands development. At Pembina we actually engage in relatively few regulatory processes, given the amount of resources they require. Our preference is to address problems collaboratively with governments and industry and work to advance policies that result in better environmental outcomes across the board.
GCV: Can you foresee the Government of Alberta, the oil industry and the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition as well as other environmental groups collaborating in a round table discussion about the best course of action to take regarding environmental regulation and minimizing environmental damage?
SD: The Government of Alberta has convened a number of multi-stakeholder groups, comprised of various stakeholders including public servants, industry representatives, First Nations and Métis groups, and environmental groups. Pembina has actively participated in multi-stakeholder groups in the past including the Cumulative Environmental Management Association and the Joint Oilsands Monitoring Program. There are many policy improvements that could be implemented to address many of the issues around oilsands development. We outline 19 of them here.
GCV: With a great deal of pollution having already affected the Boreal forest in northern Alberta, how will increased oilsands production of the TransCanada and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines if approved, further compromise the water and land pollution already affecting the health of First Nations people and communities?
SD: While oilsands production has expanded rapidly in the last decade, government policies and regulations have failed to keep up, creating serious challenges in managing the environmental, social and economic impacts.
Amidst growing urgency about the need to fight global warming, the oilsands have emerged as Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution. Other impacts — water withdrawals from the Athabasca River, to the creation of toxic liquid tailings, to the impacts on the Boreal forest — are also important.
Many of the environmental, social and economic impacts being felt across Alberta can be traced back to the current approach of developing the oilsands as fast as possible rather than at a manageable pace. Current production in the oilsands is approximately 2 million barrels of bitumen per day, however government regulators have already approved as much as 5 million barrels per day of production. That’s nearly triple the current rate of oilsands production, a level of expansion that has been approved despite widespread recognition that the environmental costs of our current approach to oilsands extraction are unacceptably high, and major improvements to both government oversight and industry operations are required.
GCV: How efficient or lacking is the monitoring of health issues in the region and has OSEC approached Alberta Health Services to do future studies in this regard? If health studies were initiated, have they been completed and if not, why not?
SD: Alberta and Canada have recently unveiled a new monitoring plan, called the Joint Oilsands Monitoring Program. However, the monitoring of health impacts due to oilsands development is beyond the scope of this program. I don’t have expertise in health issues, sorry.
GCV: What are the future goals of the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition and how has this recent court ruling and victory raised the bar for public participation in the regulatory process?
SD: Albertans have a right to a fair oilsands regulatory process, including the right to be heard and raise concerns. At a time when evidence is mounting that cumulative impacts from oilsands are exceeding regional thresholds, it's essential that directly affected stakeholders with credible information get a fair hearing. We are pleased to see this court ruling has corrected an error in the regulatory processes.
GCV: If there were anything you’d like to say to the Government of Alberta regarding future solidarity in protecting the land and water rights of Albertans and First Nations people, what would it be?
SD: As an Alberta-born organization keen to advance solutions to the growing regional and climate impacts of oilsands production, we think it’s time to revisit the definition of responsible development in the context of current and future oilsands development. We’re already witnessing serious environmental problems associated with growing oilsands production: contamination of forests, wetlands and rivers; declining caribou populations; and steadily increasing greenhouse gas pollution, to name just a few. We look forward to collaborating with government, First Nations, industry and other stakeholders to ensure Alberta achieves true responsible oilsands development – development that meets our climate obligations, addresses cumulative impacts, and is in the best interest of Albertans and Canadians.
Contact Information:
Simon Dyer, Policy Director, Pembina Institute
Phone: 780-485-9610 x100 • Cell: 587-873-3937
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