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Oilsands carbon capture project must have a full assessment: Ecojustice

May 14, 2024

Canada’s National Observer: Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam pictured speaking at a press conference in Ottawa last spring. File photo by Natasha Bulowski / Canada’s National Observer Listen to article

A massive carbon capture project in Canada’s oilsands should require an environmental impact assessment, say a local First Nation and environmental groups who are calling on the provincial government to make it happen.

A coalition of Canada’s six largest oilsands companies called the Pathways Allianceplan to build more than 600 kilometres of pipelines, a carbon capture and storage (CCS) area and facilities to capture carbon dioxide from 13 different oilsands operations in northeast Alberta.

On May 13, Ecojustice wrote to the province and the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) asking for a provincial environmental impact assessment of the Pathways Alliance CCS project.

The Pathways Alliance plans to split the $16.5-billion megaproject into 126 smaller segments with multiple applications for various licences, according to a regulatory schedule prepared by Pathways member Canadian Natural Resources Limited. Ecojustice, an environmental law charity, says the project should be judged in its entirety with one application. However, they expect Pathways Alliance to submit individual applications for the 126 portions of the project in the coming months. 

Ecojustice’s letter said this “piecemeal approach” helps avoid rigorous environmental assessment. Known as “project splitting,” this approach avoids any assessment of the cumulative and regional impacts of these activities together by examining each small application in isolation.

The province will defer to the AER on whether an environmental impact assessment is needed, Ryan Fournier, press secretary to Alberta Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz, told Canada’s National Observer.

The AER did not say whether it would hold a public hearing on the Pathways project or require an assessment for the CCS project as a whole. Instead, the emailed response said people or groups can submit a statement of concern and that the AER considers these statements, and other factors, when deciding whether or not to conduct a hearing.

The environmental law charity points out Shell’s Quest facility — a much smaller carbon capture project — underwent a joint federal and provincial environmental impact assessment in 2010. The Pathways Alliance’s proposed project would capture roughly nine times more carbon dioxide than Quest and require a pipeline network seven times longer. 

The request noted a CCS project of this magnitude introduces a suite of impacts: increased water consumption would put pressure on the watershed, natural gas will likely be used to power CCS equipment and contribute to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, CO2 becomes explosive when compressed for transport and CO2 leaks are difficult to detect and are dangerous.

Ecojustice sent the request on behalf of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), the Alberta Wilderness Association, Climate Action Network Canada, Environmental Defence Canada, and a local grassroots group called No to CO2.

“Alberta has to realize that without doing an environmental assessment, it will be unable to fulfil its constitutional obligation to consult with ACFN and other local Indigenous communities about the expected impacts of the project on our constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights,” said ACFN Chief Allan Adam in a press release. “Not only does this undermine our treaty rights but it also puts the project at serious legal risk.” 

Adam said the ACFN has been seeking critical information from Pathways about this project for the past two years, to no avail.

“The current regulatory process continues to prevent ACFN from making an informed decision on this massive industrial project,” he said. Adam called on the AER to pause its consideration of existing applications and require an environmental assessment and public hearing in order to ensure the rights of ACFN are protected. 

Currently, Alberta does not require emergency response plans for CO2 pipelines. CO2 is colourless and odourless, making it hard to detect and avoid leaks. It is an asphyxiant that displaces oxygen in the air and when inhaled, can cause headaches, disorientation, elevated blood pressure and even death, depending on the concentration and length of exposure.

This makes it dangerous for nearby communities, the request noted. 

Ecojustice’s request also noted that if CO2 leaks or escapes its underground storage and enters the atmosphere, it will contribute to climate change.

The pipeline to transport CO2 will be built on the ACFN’s territory and along with the project’s direct impacts, the nation would also be subject to indirect effects. In particular, oilsands operations will continue to increase the amount of toxic wastewater stored in large human-made lakes called tailings ponds, which have had leakage problems.

This article will be updated with comment from the Pathways Alliance when it becomes available.

Pathways Alliance members — Suncor Energy, Imperial Oil, Cenovus Energy, ConocoPhillips, Canadian Natural Resources and MEG Energy — are responsible for 95 per cent of Canada’s oilsands production and are seeking hefty government subsidies to pay for roughly two-thirds of the $16.5-billion CCS storage hub and network.

The project is the centrepiece of Pathways Alliance’s pitch to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its operations in order to prolong oil production. The group is currently being investigated by Canada’s Competition Bureau after Greenpeace Canada alleged a Pathways Alliance ad campaign presenting Pathways members as “making clear strides toward net zero” was “false and misleading.”

Updates and corrections

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May 14, 2024, 07:02 pm

This article was updated to include comment from the province and Alberta Energy Regulator.