Review panel asks for extra time to consider $20B Fort McMurray oilsands mine

A federal panel conducting an environmental assessment of a $20.6-billion oilsands mine is asking for an eight-month extension to complete the review.

Panel says Teck Resources made last-minute changes to its project description for the Frontier mine

A mining shovel fills a haul truck at an oilsands mine near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

A federal panel conducting an environmental assessment of a $20.6-billion oilsands mine is asking for an eight-month extension to complete the review.

The joint federal and provincial panel reviewing Teck Resources' Frontier oilsands project asked both governments for the extension Wednesday.

"The Frontier Oil Sands Mine Project application is complex," the panel's chair Alex Bolton wrote in a letter posted to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency website. "If approved and constructed, the project would have a disturbance footprint of 292 km²."

The panel said Teck made last-minute changes to the project description and the total amount of records ballooned to 30,000 pages.

"The fact that these changes came so late in the pre-panel timeline resulted in the federal reviewers having less time to thoroughly review the new project design and request additional information from Teck in advance of the panel's appointment," Bolton wrote.

The chair also said the panel has received an additional mandate from the federal government to include the project's potential effect on the Wood Buffalo National Park and the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

Bolton said he expects the panel to submit its final report by mid-2018.

Fort Chipewyan sits on the outskirts of Wood Buffalo National Park. The park is home to the 'largest self-regulating bison herd in the world,' according to Parks Canada (Mikisew Cree First Nation/ Submitted)

Extensions granted on case-by-case basis

Additionally, the panel still needs to facilitate requests for additional information and public hearings, including a special hearing that was requested in Fort Chipewyan, according to Bolton.

If the request for extra time is granted by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, it will be the second extension the panel has received. The panel was granted a three-month extension in May 2016 for the Fort McMurray wildfire.

Lucille Jamault, spokesperson for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, could not say how long it would take the CEAA and the Alberta Energy Regulator to consider panel's the extension request. 

Jamault said the panel still has 23 more weeks of work left. She said project extensions are granted on a case-by-case basis.

The proposed mine, if approved, would be 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The company says Frontier would create approximately 7,000 temporary construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs during operations.

Teck intends to produce 260,000 barrels of bitumen per day from Frontier, over the mine's expected 40-year life span. 

If approved, the Frontier mine is expected to begin operating in 2026.

Concerned First Nations

First Nations groups close to the mine site have said they support extending the review. 

Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations for the Mikisew Cree, said Teck hasn't answered critical questions about how the mine will affect the Wood Buffalo National Park and its bison heard.

"This project is so critical," Lepine said. "It's right there. It is literally 30 kilometres south of the Wood Buffalo National Park border. It's within the watershed flowing into the delta. It is a very important project."

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has also voiced similar concerns in a letter posted to the assessment agency's website.

The Mikisew and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations are concerned about the impact of Teck's new mine on Wood Buffalo National Park. (Mikisew Cree First Nation/ Submitted)

Teck Ressources spokesperson Chad Pederson said in an email statement Wednesday that the company "will be closely watching for the response of the federal government to this request."

Pederson said Teck is prepared to respond to any questions from the panel.

"We believe that the Frontier Project is ready to advance to the hearing," Pederson said. "And believe that our regulatory submission represents a comprehensive and detailed social and environmental assessment of the project."

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David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.