09/05/2013 02:23 EDT | Updated 11/05/2013 05:12 EST

Oilsands Environmental Coalition Seeks Court Decision On MacKay River Hearings


EDMONTON - Alberta environmentalists argued in court Thursday that the provincial government is keeping them out of hearings on a proposed oilsands development at least partly because of their concerns about the industry.

The accusation emerged in court documents filed in support of the Oilsands Environmental Coalition's bid to have a judge overturn a decision by Alberta Environment's northern region director denying the coalition the chance to present its concerns in hearings on a proposal by Southern Pacific Resource Corp. (TSX:STP).

"The Director ... breached his duties of procedural fairness as he took into consideration improper and irrelevant factors," says the coalition's brief.

In March 2012, the coalition submitted a position paper on Southern Pacific's application to build and operate an in-situ oilsands mine on the banks of the MacKay River in northeastern Alberta. The coalition, composed of the Fort McMurray Environmental Association, the Pembina Institute, the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Toxics Watch Society, has successfully filed such statements on 14 other oilsands developments.

Coalition members hold leases to use land downstream of the project for recreational purposes.

The director of Alberta Environment's northern region — who is not named in the documents — questioned whether the groups met the government's requirements for being "directly affected" by the project. The director asked for identities of the affected people, details of their activities, coalition membership requirements, home communities of affected members and details of the leased land.

Southern Pacific asked the director on June 15 not to accept the coalition's statement. On June 26 the director told the coalition its statement would be refused because it didn't prove most of its members would be directly affected.

Last March, the director compiled all the documents generated by Southern Pacific's application. Among them, uncovered by the Pembina Institute through a Freedom of Information request, was an August 2009 briefing note to the deputy minister of Alberta Environment.

The note acknowledges that statements from coalition members have been accepted in the past.

"They were given the benefit of the doubt," the note says.

It goes on to say the coalition members are no longer involved in government initiatives such as the Cumulative Effects Management Association — a multi-stakeholder group from which coalition members quit in 2008 over concerns that its recommendations were being ignored.

"As reflected in the Pembina Institute's recent publications about the oilsands, (coalition members) are now less inclined to work co-operatively ... It has been decided that we should ask the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition to prove how they are directly affected on future applications."

The note adds: "With more parties providing submissions, there is a need to identify the groups or individuals who are truly directly affected."

The note also warns the deputy minister that the decision could create blowback.

"The Oils Sands Environmental Coalition could make statements that Alberta Environment is pushing the public out of the statement of concern process; they could do a membership drive to gain more members in Fort McMurray and area who could then claim to be directly affected."

The coalition argued that the government was unfairly stringent in deciding if the groups were directly affected. They add that their position on oilsands development shouldn't play a role in determining who gets to address oilsands proposals.

Alberta Environment officials were considering the accusations Thursday and were preparing a response.

Arguments in the hearing were expected to wrap up Thursday. A decision is expected within a few weeks.

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