11/13/2013 11:58 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:56 EST

Southern Pacific Project Court Decision: Alberta Won't Appeal Ruling Allowing OSEC Into Oilsands Hearing


EDMONTON - Alberta won't appeal a court ruling that was highly critical of the province for preventing environmental groups from voicing concerns about an oilsands project.

Last month a judge threw out a decision by a government official who refused to allow the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition to speak at a review into the proposed Southern Pacific Resource Corp. mine near Fort McMurray.

The judge ruled the decision was biased because a government memo stated the coalition should be denied after it had been publicly critical of the oilsands.

Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen said Wednesday the coalition is welcome to apply again to be heard at a regulatory review of the project.

She would not say if the new application would be approved.

"It is important that all directly affected Albertans share their environmental concerns with us on industry projects," McQueen said.

"Moving forward, we will continue to ensure that each and every potential statement of concern is reviewed on its own merits."

Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, one of two organizations that make up the coalition, welcomed the government's decision not to appeal.

He said the coalition will resubmit its application to have a regulatory review hear its concerns about the mine, including how it would affect dwindling numbers of woodland caribou and the amount of fresh water it would use.

Dyer said the real test of whether the government has learned from the court ruling will be how it deals with the new application.

"We are pleased that the government has acknowledged that it needs to follow the law but disappointed the government hasn't apologized or admitted it made a mistake," he said.

"We will wait and see. We look forward to the government accepting our new statement of concern. We think there are legitimate issues we want to put on the public record."

The coalition had routinely been given standing before, but this time was rejected on the grounds it was not directly affected by the project. The group has a licence to occupy land for recreational purposes downstream of the mine site.

In his ruling last month, Justice Richard Marceau of Court of Queen's Bench noted that nowhere in Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act does it say the government can exclude from reviews "those persons or groups who voice negative statements about proposed oilsands development."

New Democrat Rachel Notley said the government's decision not to appeal the ruling isn't good enough. She called for an independent review into how the province reviews energy projects.

Notley said the government is effectively accepting the judge's ruling that Alberta Environment staff engaged in a gross breach of justice.

"This minister's staff broke the law and engaged in an inappropriate injection of industry bias while they were tasked with the job of protecting our air, our land and our water," she said.

"Albertans need to know that the system is actually being administered objectively and in the public interest and so far we have a judge telling us that he doesn't think that is the case."

The Wildrose Opposition called the government's decision not to appeal an admission of guilt.

Wildrose environment critic Joe Anglin said the province must make changes to ensure Alberta's regulatory processes remain free of political interference.

"By not appealing the decision the PC government is admitting guilt, (and) is also failing to convince Albertans and our international partners that lessons have been learned," he said.

The court ruling and the government's decision could have implications for other groups.

Earlier this year, Metis Local 1935 from Fort McMurray and the Fort McKay First Nation were denied standing at hearings after filing statements of concern regarding oilsands developments.

The Metis are concerned about the Thickwood project proposed by Grizzly Oilsands Ltd., about 60 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray.

The Fort McKay band filed a statement of concern regarding an Athabasca Oil Sands Corp. (TSX:ATH) proposal about 20 kilometres from one of its reserves.

In September both groups were told they failed to make their case to be heard by regulators who will decide if the projects should go ahead.

McQueen did not comment on these cases Wednesday.

She said since Marceau's ruling the government has assessed how it deals with applications filed by groups who want to speak at review hearings.

"Albertans can have confidence that directly affected decisions made by my staff are unbiased and meet all the legal requirements."

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