A massive new oilsands project in Alberta is "in the public interest," a review panel has decided, despite acknowledging the inevitability of "significant adverse effects" on the environment and Indigenous Peoples.
If approved, Teck Resources' Frontier mine would be built 30 km south of Wood Buffalo National Park, in an area between Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan.
Up on the north side of the park, the Smith's Landing First Nation is concerned the company isn’t taking its members' concerns about the mine's potential impact on their territory seriously.
Chief Gerry Cheezie said the province, regulatory agencies, and oil companies don't believe the First Nation will be affected as they are 240 km away from the project.
In full: The review panel's report
"They don't seem to understand that we are at the bottleneck where all the water comes through," he said. "[The Slave River] flows through our land and affects our ability to harvest now and in the future.
"We are affected. We totally disagree with that approval and we will do everything in our power to oppose it," said Cheezie, who argues treaty rights must be taken into account.
The federal-provincial panel expressed no concern the mine will affect water quality but did forecast wetlands, old-growth forests, and numerous species of animal will experience adverse – possibly irreversible – effects.
In addition, the panel concluded Indigenous Peoples' asserted rights, use of traditional lands, and cultures will be negatively impacted.
The review suggested these destructive aspects were counterbalanced by the jobs and billions of dollars the project is expected to bring to Alberta.
Teck is projecting the creation of 7,000 jobs during the mine's construction phase and another 2,500 operational jobs over the mine's anticipated 41-year life.
The mine will produce 260,000 barrels of oil a day, Teck says, which could result in up to $70 billion in income for various levels of government.
However, The Narwhal reported "the predicted economic benefits of the project are based on oil prices not seen in years" and suggested the mine may make increasingly little economic sense in a world transitioning, albeit slowly, to renewable energy.
"They figure that money can buy everything. Oil companies are notorious for that," said Cheezie, indicating that even if his First Nation were offered vast sums of money, it could never make up for the loss of land and culture.
"We're not moving anywhere," he said. "Our children and grandchildren grow in this area and live in this area, and they have a right to live as their forefathers have. The economic benefits are minimal to our people."
"[The project] will be a major disruptive force that's going to destroy our communities."
The mine remains subject to provincial and federal approval. Cheezie said his First Nation will be at those tables when decisions are made.
Smith's Landing presented evidence regarding the mine's cumulative impacts which the panel found to be reliable. However, Teck argued its project is "predicted to have negligible effects on the park, including the Peace-Athabasca Delta, and therefore Smith’s Landing’s traditional use of the park and the Peace-Athabasca Delta would not be affected by the project."
Impact on Wood Buffalo National Park
Wood Buffalo National Park is already facing the threat of being considered an at-risk world heritage site owing to existing cumulative impacts of climate change, oilsands projects, and dams.
The panel was asked to consider what effect Teck's mine would have on the park. It concluded there would be loss of habitat outside the park and "potential contaminant loading" in the delta, but the effect on the park itself would likely be "negligible."
"Since the park’s location or remoteness will not be altered, the Frontier project is not expected affect its integrity, which is the overarching outstanding universal value of Wood Buffalo National Park," the panel wrote.
Asked for comment, Parks Canada said it was reviewing the panel's report and had little decision-making power as the mine is located outside the park's boundaries.
Parks Canada believes its action plan to save Wood Buffalo's world heritage site status will also protect the park from the Frontier project "so that it remains a treasured place for generations to come."
However, UNESCO's feedback in July suggested Canada still needs to do a better job of monitoring the environment and engaging Indigenous partners.
Mitigation may not be effective
In addition to the prospect of harming the environment and Indigenous Peoples, the panel said Teck's proposed mitigation measures have not been proven effective.
"While reclamation to an equivalent land capability is legally required, reclamation will not fully mitigate all project effects because some habitat types cannot be reclaimed, reclamation will not occur or be complete for many years, and there are uncertainties associated with final reclamation outcomes," wrote the panel, noting more than 14,000 hectares of wetlands and 3,000 hectares of old-growth forest would be lost.
"There may be a loss of habitat for many species reliant on such forests, including species at risk, for at least 100 years following closure in 2081," the panel continued.
"Further, it is uncertain whether Indigenous groups will re-establish traditional use activities on reclaimed lands following a multi-generational absence and the resulting loss of cultural connection to those lands."
The Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Northwest Territory Métis Nation did not respond to requests for comment.