Canada’s federal minister supports giving Northwest Territory a seat on oilsands oversight committee

Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson in British Columbia in May 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
The federal environment minister says he supports giving the Northwest Territories a seat at the table when it comes to environmental and water monitoring in Alberta’s oilsands.

The comments come after the Canadian Press reported that Alberta and the federal government signed a deal to make major cuts to environmental monitoring of the oilsands due to the pandemic. As a result, the budget was reduced for fieldwork on the main branch of the Athabasca River which flows downstream into the Northwest Territories.

The N.W.T. has asked for a spot on the committee that oversees the Oil Sands Monitoring Program, which is jointly managed by Alberta and the federal government.

“We have said to the [N.W.T.] government as recently as yesterday, I sent a letter back to the minister, that we will certainly raise that,” Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told CBC Thursday.

“Personally, I have no objection to that, but obviously there are other parties to this, and we have to make sure they are consulted as well.”

Wilkinson said that the Canadian Press story “got it a bit wrong,” and said he wanted to clarify that there was no agreement between the federal and Alberta governments to cut budgets, but rather the recommendations to do so was from the oilsands oversight committee. He said that the budget cuts are a result of a shortened research season due to COVID-19.

He said the committee has 12 members, including six Indigenous members, two representatives from the government of Alberta and one from the federal government.

N.W.T. minister ‘very satisfied’ with feds, Alberta

Shane Thompson, N.W.T.’s environment minister, said Friday that the N.W.T. government asked to have a seat on two committees to have more say in decisions — the oversight committee and a technical advisory committee.

“Those two tools, committees, are very important. We feel we need to be there.” Shane Thompson, N.W.T.'s environment minister

He said his counterparts have been supportive.

“They heard us and have been working with us behind the scenes.”

Indigenous leaders in N.W.T. and northern Alberta said this week they were “angry” about the budget cuts, and they were “losing faith” in environmental protection of their land and water.

But Thompson said he’s OK with Wilkinson’s budget cut explanation that fieldwork couldn’t be done in the South due to COVID-19.

“I’m very satisfied. When I talked to both the ministers from Alberta and the federal minister, it was very, very much clear that this change they implemented was across Canada — it wasn’t just specifically the Slave or the Hay River.”Shane Thompson

“It was about safety for their staff and their people. So we understood what they did. And at no point in time are we disagreeing with their approach.”

News came out in July that Alberta suspended environmental monitoring for oilsands companies without notifying the Northwest Territories, despite a legally binding agreement to do so.

When asked about this lack of consultation, Thompson was forgiving.

“It was a slip-up, a mix up. And these things do happen. They apologized and they said moving forward we’re going to make sure that consultation and us working together is going to be first and foremost.” Shane Thompson

Thompson said despite the interruptions in water monitoring, he’s sure the water coming downstream from Alberta has been safe throughout the pandemic.

“We have been monitoring the water … in our locations to ensure the water is safe. I can rest assure the residents of the Northwest Territories, we’ve been doing our due diligence.”Shane Thompson

Thompson said the N.W.T. will continue to test and monitor the water, and said his understanding is that the federal government will reimburse the territory for the cost.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canadian Indigenous leaders ‘losing faith’ in environmental protection amid budget cuts, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland/Denmark: Greenland and Denmark finalize cooperation agreement on marine pollution response, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Miners hunting for metals to battery cars threaten Finland’s Sámi reindeer herders’ homeland, Yle News

Iceland: Arctic Science Ministerial postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Climate change hits back at Svalbard, coal mine flooded by melting glacier in Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia to remove dangerous nuclear objects dumped on its Arctic sea floor, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Extra billions to SAS – but with stricter climate requirements, Radio Sweden

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