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National News

Group reapplies to oppose oilsands project

EDMONTON - An environmental group has reapplied to speak to an oilsands review panel after a court tossed out the Alberta government's attempt to block the organization.

The Alberta Oilsands Environmental Coalition is asking the province for a chance to appear at a regulatory hearing into a project proposed by Southern Pacific Resource Corp. to expand an oilsands facility northwest of Fort McMurray.

"We oppose the project in its current form and are seeking the opportunity to voice our concerns at a hearing," the coalition said in a letter filed Wednesday.

The group was denied that opportunity when it first asked for it in 2012, even though it had routinely been granted standing at previous hearings.

An Alberta Environment bureaucrat ruled that the coalition hadn't demonstrated that its members would be directly affected by the development, a requirement that must be met to be granted standing at hearings held by the province's energy regulator.

The coalition argued that it holds a recreational lease on land that would be directly affected. It also said that one of its organizations, the Fort McMurray Environmental Association, has 37 members who live nearby.

The coalition decided to try to reverse the decision in the courts.

It was during that process that a 2009 Alberta Environmental internal memo was revealed. That memo singled out the Pembina Institute, another coalition member, for its critical stance on the oilsands. The memo suggested the sustainable energy think-tank was "less inclined to work co-operatively.''

Queen's Bench Justice Richard Marceau concluded in October that that was the real reason the coalition was denied standing. He said reasons for the government's 2012 refusal and the 2009 memo were so close they could have come from the same template.

He ruled that the government doesn't have the right to bar groups from hearings for having differing opinions. He went on to urge the province to seek broad input on oilsands developments to ensure the best decisions are made.

Southern Pacific wants to build a 12,000-barrel-a-day expansion of its McKay mine, about 45 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray. The in situ project, using steam injected underground to pump out bitumen, would employ 51 people and have a direct impact on 488 hectares of land.

The coalition says the expansion would drop water levels in the McKay River by reducing the amount of ground water flowing into it. It also says the project would damage habitat for a herd of woodland caribou that has already declined more than 50 per cent in the last 20 years.

Southern Pacific shares were busy on the markets Wednesday after the company announced it will put itself through a "strategic alternative review," which may end with the company being sold, merged with another corporation or in some other business combination.

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