Suncor’s McClelland Lake project opportunity for AER to rehab image as ‘Alberta Energy Facilitator’

Time for careful evaluation of impact on McClelland Lake’s two fens and their 60 kilometres of sensitive peat-producing wetlands?

Critics call it the “Alberta Energy Facilitator.” A spat emerging over Suncor’s proposed McClelland Lake oil sands project is a test of the provincial oil and gas regulator’s commitment to protecting the public interest. Will the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) reconsider the project’s approval, as requested by the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), or continue with its usual practice of rubber stamping more development?

Suncor plans to cut an ecologically sensitive northern Alberta wetland in half with a wall that will be 14-kilometres long and between 20 and 70-metres deep. Scottish scientist Dr. Lorna Harris co-authored a review of the project for the AWA. She says that if a project as significant as McClelland Lake came before the regulator in Scotland, it would have received much more public attention.

“It wouldn’t have been a simple, ‘yes, go ahead,’” she told Energi Media. “This would’ve been significant damage to a high-integrity peatland…[in], Scotland very rare, very unusual. So, it would be very controversial.”

The issue barely raises an eyebrow in Alberta. In fact, Suncor is miffed that the AER is even thinking about granting the AWA’s request to reconsider approval. It argues that acquiescing to the environmental group  will play into industry opponents’ hands.

“Granting the (association’s) request … would endorse (its) strategy, which appears to be to undermine Alberta’s regulatory system and to create a disconcerting precedent whereby requestors could utilize the (regulator’s) reconsideration powers to intentionally boycott (its) processes and subsequently compel new and unnecessary processes,” the filing says, as reported by Bob Weber of the Canadian Press.

AER already captured by oil and gas industry

“Undermine Alberta’s regulatory system” is an interesting phrase. As Energi Media explained in Unethical Oil Part 2: Alberta’s Orphan Well Crisis, from the very first legislation in 1938, the provincial regulator’s primary purpose has been to keep the oil and gas industry profitable and expanding. Protecting the public interest has always been secondary to protecting the industry’s interest, as Professor Jason Maclean explains in the interview above.

The McClelland Lake project had already been approved. Phillip Meintzer of the AWA says his organization didn’t participate in early review processes because it assumed, based upon plenty of experience with the AER’s approval process, that its voice would be ignored. To the great surprise of critics, that didn’t happen this time.


Former AER employee Chris Severson-Baker, now executive director of think tank Pembina Institute, says that historically the regulator goes through cycles during which it acts progressively more captured, then public scrutiny (usually caused by a highly visible incident like Imperial Oil’s Kearl leak and spill earlier this year) forces it to be more sensitive to the public interest part of its mandate.

Is that what happened in this case? Who knows? The AER is infamous for jealously guarding information and not giving interviews to journalists. 

“Maybe it’s time we had a process that opens it up,” Meintzer told CP. “Maybe we need more room for public comment on these processes.”

If the process were opened up, one of the questions that should be asked of Suncor (which isn’t any better than the AER about granting interviews) is why they’re embarking on the McClelland Lake project just a few years away from global peak oil demand.

What happens if market conditions dramatically change (and prices fall) shortly after McClelland Lake begins producing bitumen? How will Suncor pay for reclamation?

Given the degree of disruption in the global energy system, 2023 seems like a very odd time for Suncor to expect rapid approval and little public input into the development of such a sensitive northern ecosystem. Times have changed, can the regulator change with them and perhaps take a moment for sober reflection about McClelland Lake?

Now might be the time for the AER to begin rehabilitating its “Alberta Energy Facilitator” image.

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