Sask. oilsands need 3-year 'pause': environment group

The province should call a three-year time out on oilsands development to avoid mistakes made by Alberta, a report released Thursday by the Saskatchewan Environmental Society says.

Saskatchewan should call a three-year time out on oilsands development to avoid mistakes made by Alberta, a report released Thursday by the Saskatchewan Environmental Society says.

The society, which wrote the report with the Pembina Institute and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, is worried about the pace of exploration for oilsands in northwest Saskatchewan. The oilsands there are not in production yet, but could potentially hold as much as 2.3 billion barrels of bitumen, the environmental society estimated.

"Thousands of kilometres of seismic lines were being cut, air landing strips were being developed, camps involving hundreds of people were being built," said Ann Coxworth, the environmental society's research director.

Any further work should be put on hold, until studies and consultations are done that would cost an estimated $15 million, the society said.

The deep oilsands deposits in Saskatchewan would likely not be pit mined, people in the industry say. Instead, they would be extracted through "in situ" processes, such as where steam is used to pipe the material to the surface.

The society said this will mean Saskatchewan's oilsands developments will be even more greenhouse-gas-intensive than the oilsands mining done in Alberta.

Coxworth and her associates said a three-year 'pause' is needed.

The government must first identify which pieces of land are worth protecting from development, the society said. It must also map underground water sources in order to save them from contamination.

The province must also legislate strict controls on greenhouse gas emissions and must ensure that First Nations and Metis people are fully consulted, the group said.

It falls to the provincial government to stand up against too-rapid oilsands development because the federal government has already been too lax across the border in Alberta, said Peter Prebble, another spokesman for the environmental society.

Earlier this week, the society said fallout from Alberta's oilsands development is creating acid rain in Saskatchewan's north.

"The government of Canada has allowed the Alberta oilsands industry to spew out thousands of tonnes of nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide every month knowing that this is all heading towards Saskatchewan's air shed," Prebble said.

While the province has earmarked about $1 million for a sustainability study, it's questionable whether it will provide all the answers needed, the society said.

Meanwhile, Saskatchewan Minister of Energy and Resources Bill Boyd said oilsands projects in Saskatchewan will be done in the most environmentally responsible and sensitive way possible.

There is ongoing testing and monitoring, Boyd said, but asked if a three-year moratorium is viable, he was less certain.

Before any project can go forward, environmental assessments will have to be in place and social impacts will also have to be assessed, he said.