EDMONTON - Regulatory documents indicate federal scientists still have significant concerns over Shell's proposed Jackpine oilsands mine expansion even as the project heads into public hearings.
Five years after Shell Canada first proposed the 100,000-barrel-a-day project, it has been finally scheduled to go before a joint federal-provincial environmental hearing Oct. 29.
In their final submissions to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, several federal departments say they still have questions about Shell's plans. They include how growth in the industry has outpaced the company's assessment of cumulative effects, how changing flow in the Athabasca River will affect contaminant levels and how well Shell is able to control effluent from artificial lakes that will be used to store tailings.
"Several matters will require further discussion to fully understand potential project affects (sic) and ensure suitable mitigation can be implemented," says an Aug. 2 letter from Environment Canada.
Shell's Aug. 13 response acknowledges the concerns.
"Shell is fully prepared to respond to any questions identified by the interveners at the hearing," says a letter signed by Donald Crowe, the company's regulatory manager.
Crowe points out the company has already filed 18,000 pages of evidence —"unprecedented in scope and detail."
The expansion, about 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray on the east side of the Athabasca River, would bring Shell's total production at its Jackpine facilities to about 300,000 barrels a day. The plan is to mine new areas and construct processing facilities, utilities and infrastructure.
The oilsands industry in northern Alberta has mushroomed since the expansion was first proposed and now includes 11 new projects that have either been publicly announced or are before regulators. It's a growing industrial load that is of increasing concern to scientists at Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Shell has failed to look at the overall picture of how total development has already affected wildlife habitat, let alone the impacts of further expansions, says Environment Canada.
Its document goes on to say that where those impacts are measured, Shell's assessment minimizes them. For example, Shell says the amount of high-quality caribou habitat destroyed is of "low magnitude," even though the company acknowledges the amount of those losses total about 40 per cent.
"It is unclear how Shell Canada defines a 40 per cent loss ... as a low-magnitude effect," Environment Canada says.
The same department expressed concern about Shell's plans to store tailings for decades in artificial lakes capped with clean water.
Shell's tests didn't examine what might happen as various chemicals come in contact with one another. As well, the tests were based on short-term exposures.
"(Environment Canada) remains concerned with Shell Canada's ability to predict and control effluent quality from the end pit lakes."
Fisheries and Oceans also expressed worries.
"Uncertainty remains as to how the proposed no-net-loss plans will compensate for indirect and cumulative impacts to the fisheries resource and whether surrounding habitats will be as productive as before," the department writes.
"The potential for cumulative environmental effects on the Athabasca River remain uncertain."
Environment Canada is also concerned that Shell hasn't taken into account the probable effects of climate change on the Athabasca. It says Shell's predictions of likely changes to precipitation in the area are only one-half to one-third the most commonly accepted predictions — an underestimate that could have large effects on contaminant levels in the river.
Other documents released under access-to-information legislation detail Shell's frustration with the regulatory process.
Last December, Crowe wrote officials at the assessment agency and objected to a ruling forcing Shell to update its environmental work to include activity that began since 2007.
"This update represents a significant amount of work and unfairly penalizes proponents for regulatory delays, which, unfortunately, will induce further delays."
Crowe wrote that requiring Shell to consider the cumulative effects of development since Day 1 "is not consistent with legal precedent."
He also wrote Shell was being asked to consider the impacts of future developments that are still being planned.
"There is insufficient information about those activities to adequately assess their likely environmental effects."
Those kinds of broader assessments should be done by governmental or regulatory agencies, not by industry, Crowe suggested.
Shell Canada president Lorraine Mitchelmore expressed similar concerns to federal Environment Minister Peter Kent in a letter written Jan. 7, 2011.
"The length of time required for regulatory review and the lack of certainty on regulatory schedule has had a marked impact on our business development," she wrote.
"We hope that you will revisit ways to improve the process so that development proceeds efficiently under a thorough environmental review."
The Harper government is planning to streamline environmental assessments to speed major resource projects. Contained in the budget passed last June is a package that will eventually see Ottawa pay far less attention to small projects, impose time limits on major environmental hearings and pull out of the process altogether if a province is ready to step in with similar standards.
Environmentalists says Ottawa is giving up stewardship of the environment to promote energy and mining projects at all costs.
Related on HuffPost:
Syncrude Upgrader and Oil Sands
The refining or upgrading of the tarry bitumen which lies under the oil sands consumes far more oil and energy than conventional oil and produces almost twice as much carbon. Each barrel of oil requires 3-5 barrels of fresh water from the neighboring Athabasca River. About 90% of this is returned as toxic tailings into the vast unlined tailings ponds that dot the landscape. Syncrude alone dumps 500,000 tons of toxic tailings into just one of their tailings ponds everyday.
Boreal Forest and Coast Mountains / Atlin Lake, British Columbia | 2001
This area, located in the extreme northwest of British Columbia, marks the western boundary of the Boreal region. On the border of the Yukon and Southeast Alaska, the western flank of these mountains descends into Alaska's Tongass Rainforest and British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest. Far from the oil sands, the greatest remaining coastal temperate and marine ecosystem is imminently threatened by the proposal to build a 750-mile pipeline to pump 550,000 barrels per day of oil sands crude to the coast. Once there, it would be shipped through some of the most treacherous waters, virtually assuring an ecological disaster at some point in the future.
Tailings Pond in Winter, Abstract #2 / Alberta Tar Sands | 2010
Even in the extreme cold of the winter, the toxic tailings ponds do not freeze. On one particularly cold morning, the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue, combined to produce abstractions that reminded me of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Aspen and Spruce | Northern Alberta | 2001
Photographed in late autumn in softly falling snow, a solitary spruce is set against a sea of aspen. The Boreal Forest of northern Canada is perhaps the best and largest example of a largely intact forest ecosystem. Canada's Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption.
Tar Sands at Night #1 | Alberta Oil Sands | 2010
Twenty four hours a day the oil sands eats into the most carbon rich forest ecosystem on the planet. Storing almost twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests, the boreal forest is the planet's greatest terrestrial carbon storehouse. To the industry, these diverse and ecologically significant forests and wetlands are referred to as overburden, the forest to be stripped and the wetlands dredged and replaced by mines and tailings ponds so vast they can be seen from outer space.
Dry Tailings #2 | Alberta Tar Sands | 2010
In an effort to deal with the problem of tailings ponds, Suncor is experimenting with dry tailings technology. This has the potential to limit, or eliminate, the need for vast tailings ponds in the future and lessen this aspect of the oil sands' impact.
Tailings Pond Abstract #2 | Alberta Tar Sands / 2010
So large are the Alberta Tar Sands tailings ponds that they can be seen from space. It has been estimated by Natural Resources Canada that the industry to date has produced enough toxic waste to fill a canal 32 feet deep by 65 feet wide from Fort McMurray to Edmonton, and on to Ottawa, a distance of over 2,000 miles. In this image, the sky is reflected in the toxic and oily waste of a tailings pond.
Confluence of Carcajou River and Mackenzie River | Mackenzie Valley, NWT | 2005
The Caracajou River winds back and forth creating this oxbow of wetlands as it joins the Mackenzie flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. This region, almost entirely pristine, and the third largest watershed basin in the world, will be directly impacted by the proposed Mackenzie Valley National Gas Pipeline to fuel the energy needs of the Alberta Oil Sands mega-project.
Black Cliff | Alberta Oil Sands | 2005
Oil sands pit mining is done in benches or steps. These benches are each approximately 12-15 meters high. Giant shovels dig the oil sand and place it into heavy hauler trucks that range in size from 240 tons to the largest trucks, which have a 400-ton capacity.
Oil Sands Upgrader in Winter| Alberta Oil Sands | 2010
The Alberta oil sands are Canada's single largest source of carbon. They produce about as much annually as the nation of Denmark. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and uses almost twice as much energy as the production of conventional oil. Particularly visible in winter, vast plumes of toxic pollution fill the skies. The oil sands are so large they create their own weather systems.
Boreal Forest and Wetland | Athabasca Delta Northern Alberta | 2010
Located just 70 miles downstream from the Alberta oil sands, the Athabasca Delta is the world's largest freshwater delta. It lies at the convergence of North America's four major flyways and is a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl and considered one of the most globally significant wetlands. It is threatened both by the massive water consumption of the tar sands and its toxic tailings ponds.
Tar Pit #3
This network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It represents for me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the oil sands.