Kent rejects Cenovus Energy gas project in Alberta

The federal government has vetoed an Alberta gas project proposed by Cenovus Energy because it would have threatened the habitat of 19 species at risk.

Opposition questions timing of announcement after six years of review

Environment Minister Peter Kent walks in the Foyer in the House of Commons after announcing he won't approve an Alberta gas project planned by Cenovus Energy. Kent said the proposed project in the CFB Suffield national wildlife area would put up to 19 species at risk. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal government has vetoed an Alberta gas project proposed by Cenovus Energy because it would have threatened the habitat of 19 species at risk.

Cenovus Energy initially proposed to drill up to 1,275 shallow gas wells in the CFB Suffield national wildlife area, doubling the number of wells that were in place before the area was declared a protected zone.

It's the first decision Environment Minister Peter Kent has announced since the government passed new, streamlined, environmental assessment rules amid much controversy last spring.

"It's clear the adverse environmental effects that would be caused by the proposed project are significant," Kent told reporters outside the House of Commons. "As a result, I've decided that the project will not be granted federal approval to proceed. The environmental impacts are simply too great."

The project was assessed by a joint Ottawa-Alberta review panel that started its work in 2006 and released its findings in 2009. It then took three more years to determine how fragile the ecosystem of the area actually was, set up recovery plans for the species at risk and then make a final decision on the proposal.

"This decision is a clear indication of our government's commitment to strengthening environmental protection, which as you know, is a crucial pillar of our government's responsible, resource development plan," Kent said.

He says the decision proves his critics were wrong and the new process does not rubber-stamp resource development.

"Contrary to the claims of our critics, responsible resource development is not an automatic green light for all development projects — only those projects that meet our environmental rigour will be approved," he said.

Cenovus has the right to try again for approval with a revised proposal, but Kent held out little hope for a change of heart.

"There would be significant disruption, I would think, even under a new proposal."

"Our government, the Harper government, takes its environmental responsibilities very seriously. Protecting the environment matters to our government. And this decision, I believe, demonstrates exactly that."

The opposition NDP was not impressed.

Critic Megan Leslie said it has been obvious for years that the Cenovus proposal was a no-go, and the minister left his formal recognition of that fact until the eve of United Nations climate negotiations where Canada's reputation is taking a beating.

"It's amazing that the minister has set the bar so low that just doing his job is newsworthy," Leslie said in an email.

She said the decision comes on the heels of another non-announcement designed to hype Canada's environmental credentials. Earlier this week, Kent announced new draft regulations to cut emissions from cars and light trucks during the latter half of this decade.

"That's two pretty cynical announcements in one week, the week before the minister leaves for international climate negotiations," Leslie said.

"The first was announcing an American announcement to great fanfare — an announcement that the U.S. made this summer — and now an announcement that, three years later, the government won't rubber-stamp industry's application. And we're supposed to be impressed?"

The CFB Suffield national wildlife area is one of the few large blocks of dry, mixed-grass prairie still existing in Canada, accounting for 30 per cent of Alberta's protected grasslands, Environment Canada says.

While a decision on the Cenovus proposal took six years from start to finish, Kent argued that under the new rules announced last spring, a decision would have been much faster.

Still, he recognized that scientists needed time to properly assess the fragility of the area and examine ways to mitigate any damage. But he said lots of time was also wasted.

Now, with government-imposed time limits on how long a panel can take to assess resource projects, panel members will be forced to focus on the job at hand, he said.