Imperial Oil halts Norman Wells waste facility process


Imperial Oil says it is withdrawing its application to regulators regarding a planned waste management facility in Norman Wells.

The company, which is gradually winding down its century-old operation in the Sahtu community, sent letters this week withdrawing applications filed with the Canada Energy Regulator and Sahtu Land and Water Board.

Imperial’s plan to build a waste management facility had already been referred to environmental assessment by the Sahtu Secretariat. The facility could hold more than a million tonnes of contaminated soil and thousands of tonnes of demolition waste as Imperial ceases operations in Norman Wells.

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Withdrawing the application essentially acts as a request to cancel the environmental assessment.

In identical letters to the two regulators, sent through its legal team, Imperial said it didn’t understand how the two regulators’ processes would work together and complained that things were taking too long.

“Imperial did not reasonably anticipate the extended timeline for processing the applications, as well as increases to the scope of issues that would be considered,” the company’s law firm wrote.

“The requisite level of clarity around scope, timelines, and process required for Imperial to continue to proceed with its applications no longer exists.”

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The company also asserted that the environmental assessment seemed set to consider broader closure plans beyond the waste management facility. Imperial said it isn’t ready for that.

“It became clear that members of communities and other stakeholders in proximity to Imperial’s Norman Wells operation want to engage on closure holistically and waste management within the context of broader closure,” the letter states.

“As such, concerns have been raised that extend beyond the scope of the present applications for the waste management facility.

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“Moreover, these proceedings have become increasingly focused on matters related to broader closure and reclamation activities at Imperial’s Norman Wells operation, which Imperial has not applied for at this time. Arriving at end-of-field-life in an orderly manner, in collaboration with the community, is a priority for Imperial.”

Imperial had already been given permission to delay proceedings by several months while it gathered more information.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal cash had been assigned to various community groups to allow their participation in the anticipated environmental assessment. What happens to those funding allocations now is not clear.

Why an assessment was requested

The Sahtu Secretariat referred the plan to environmental assessment in June.

Unusually, the Indigenous government listed “colonialism by any other name” as a key reason for that referral, alongside more common arguments like effects on the nearby environment.

The secretariat pointed to an Imperial Oil statement in a regulatory document in which the company, asked why its waste couldn’t be shipped south, stated waste in Norman Wells needed a “made-in-the-North solution … rather than expecting the south to accept the North’s waste.”

The secretariat, also known as SSI, wrote in response: “SSI considers this statement to be a most egregious one, bordering on colonialism.”

In a letter, the secretariat pointed out that Imperial Oil and the Canadian government have earned hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from the North.

“SSI believes that Imperial Oil’s full closure and reclamation plan needs to be looked at to remove any trace of the kind of thinking found in the quoted statement, and to ensure that such thinking does not influence the remediation work to the detriment of the Sahtu region and its people,” the secretariat wrote at the time.

Indigenous governments like the Sahtu Secretariat share a power with regulators to trigger environmental assessments if they believe a project requires one.

Confusion over twin processes

An environmental assessment is the most thorough regulatory examination of a project available in the NWT.

But even some of the community participants scrutinizing Imperial’s waste facility plan have expressed uncertainty at how two regulatory processes are supposed to work together.

The Canada Energy Regulator and Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board are each beginning their own reviews of the waste management facility – or were, until Imperial’s letter this week.

Earlier in September, a meeting took place involving both regulators, Imperial, the GNWT and various Sahtu community representatives.

Notes from that meeting show that at least one attendee felt the “two timelines seem confusing.” Another comment recorded in the notes expresses a desire “to do one process” instead of two.

Asked how the two regulatory timelines would fit in with each other, Canada Energy Regulator staff respond in the notes that they are “asking for input on this.”

In a presentation accompanying that meeting, the Canada Energy Regulator said it was “in regular communication” with Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board staff, and the two were “exploring opportunities for cooperation, public awareness, timely and effective environmental impact assessment.”