Environmentalists push back against Suncor’s plan to expand tarsands

Environmentalists say Suncor’s plan to expand its Fort Hills tarsands operations will destroy an important ecosystem.

According to Phillip Meintzer with the Alberta Wilderness Association, the wetlands that Canada’s second-largest oil producer wants to use is important.

“These peatlands, these sponges sort of buffer the effect or the impact of wildfire,” said Meintzer. “Kind of slow it from moving around the landscape.”

He said that each year, the wetlands can store the same amount of CO2 as what the province of Manitoba emits each year.

“So we don’t want to see it dug up for many reasons, like whether it’s the carbon emissions, whether it impacts the wildlife habitat,” he said. “Native or rare plants that are in the area.”

In the fall of 2022, the Alberta Energy Regulator gave approval for Suncor to expand – but it decided that the expansion could only cover half of the land in what is called the McLelland Lake Wetland, located north of Fort McMurray.

It said the other half must be protected. Suncor said it plans to build a wall between the two halves.

Still, the wilderness association has asked the regulator to reconsider the approval.

Jesse Cardinal, executive director of the Keepers of the Water group said the nearby Athabasca River is drying up because of industry and the ecosystem can’t handle more loss of fresh water.

“They’re looking at extracting up to 200,000 barrels of bitumen a day,” said Cardinal. “It takes approximately six barrels of fresh water to extract one barrel of bitumen a day. So that’s millions of barrels of fresh water that is going to be extracted just from that project alone.”

Jean l’hommecourt is a land user from nearby Fort McKay First Nation. She said she’s worried about the impacts to families that rely on the watershed for food.

“They are going to take out a big chunk of land and area that is prime habitat for moose and beaver and waterfowl and all the things we depend on to sustain our way of life,” she said.

“This is our backyard we are talking about. This is our grocery store. And we are being made to depend on grocery stores now to supplement our diets, which is not very  good for us.”

Suncor told APTN News that it can’t comment because the project is being reviewed by the regulator.

In a statement to APTN, the Alberta Energy Regulator said it’s reviewing the submissions received from Suncor and conservation groups.

It said it will consider whether to reconsider the approval of the operation.

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