(ANNews) – Chiefs representing First Nations from Treaties 6, 7 and 8 joined the Alberta government and a representative from an oil and gas industry-funded organization to ask the Liberal federal government not to claw back $137 million in unspent funds from its Site Rehabilitation Program (SRP). 

The feds, however, say the funding was part of a $1 billion grant intended for an early pandemic job creation program, which the Alberta government chose not to fund fully and is no longer needed.

Loon River First Nation Chief Ivan Sawan (Treaty 8), Woodland Cree First Nation Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom (Treaty 6), Frog Lake First Nation Chief Greg Desjarlais (Treaty 6), Tsuut’ina First Nation Chief Roy Whitney (Treaty 7), Cold Lake First Nation Chief Kesley Jacko (Treaty 6) and Enoch Cree Nation Chief Cody Thomas (Treaty 6) were joined by Alberta energy minister Brian Jean, and Indian Resource Council (IRC) president and CEO Stephen Buffalo at a March 12 news conference on Enoch territory.

The IRC has received $450,000 from Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., one of Canada’s largest energy companies, since 2020, according to financial disclosures reviewed by online news site DeSmog.

“Today we come together as leaders of our nations to demonstrate the power of unity in our commitment [to] environmental stewardship,” said Chief Thomas of Enoch Cree Nation at the event’s outset. 

He described the SRP as a “beacon of hope for the remediation and abandoned and inactive oil and gas sites on First Nations lands where previously no such program has existed.”

Federal funding for the “pivotal” program enabled the hiring of 36 Indigenous-led contractors and 50 subcontractors, he added. 

Thomas said rehabilitating these former oil and gas sites allowed his nation to expand its waste treatment facility, “paving the way for a sustainable future for our community and increasing the standard of living for our members.”

If the feds claw back the unspent $137 million, First Nations will be forced to abandon 2,000 sites that require remediation, he said. 

“This is not just an environmental concern, but a moral imperative to uphold our collective responsibility to future generations. I call upon the Government of Canada, my fellow chiefs and our industry partners to join hands in ensuring the continuation of this vital program in partnership with the Government of Alberta,” said Thomas. 

Tsuut’ina First Nation Chief Whitney said it’s the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that First Nations have sufficient funding to clean up abandoned oil and gas sites.  “There’s too many oil and gas companies that simply have walked away from their obligations to remediate their wells sites on First Nations lands,” said Whitney. 

Chief Jacko of Cold Lake First Nation, who has been openly critical of industry’s plans for a carbon storage hub on his nation’s traditional lands, says the federal government should “exceed” the $137 million in remaining SRP funding, “expanding the program to just the remaining liabilities.” 

“This will allow for the continuation and completion of remediation and reclamation programs that will return the land back to its original capability, and address outstanding liabilities that have been left behind,” Jacko said. 

Woodland Cree Chief Laboucan-Avirom said securing funds for rehabilitating former extractive sites is crucial for ensuring First Nations can “maintain the ability to to hunt, fish trap and gather.”

Chief Desjarlais of Frog Lake First Nation, who sits on the IRC board, criticized Indian Oil and Gas, a Crown corporation responsible for managing oil and gas extraction on First Nations lands, “for their inability to hold up their fiduciary responsibility to the First Nation, which is why we’re here today.”

Not only does the SRP help return the land to its natural state, he said, but it “brings back value to the land, value to the fields and we’re able to just belong, be engaged.”

Jean, the energy minister, said he “can’t imagine a better project” than the SRP. “We have the money in our bank account and we just need to go ahead from the feds,” he added. 

He said the Alberta government collaborated with an industry advisory committee and Indigenous roundtable to ensure the funds that were spent were done so effectively.  Allowing the government to spend the remaining SRP funds would enable First Nations to “maintain the momentum” of the program’s success, said Jean.

“If our prime minister is serious about reclamation and the environment and Indigenous Canadians, one way they can support it is by authorizing Alberta right now to use the funds we have in our bank account — these leftover federal funds — so that we can continue with the important work of helping clean up oil and gas sites on Indigenous lands,” he said. “This cleanup is the federal government’s responsibility.”

Katherine Cuplinskas, a spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, told Alberta Native News that the Alberta government is at fault for not dispersing the unspent SRP funds in a timely manner. 

The purpose of the $1 billion allocated to Alberta for the SRP was to provide continued employment for energy workers during the early pandemic downturn in the industry, she emphasized. In May 2020, the unemployment rate in the oil and gas industry was 14.5 per cent; as of February 2024, it was four per cent. 

“Given that the province failed to invest a large portion of the $1 billion we provided, even with an extension of timelines, and that the economy is well into its recovery, we expect the Government of Alberta to abide by the agreement that it signed, and return all unspent funds, as other provinces have,” Cuplinskas wrote in an emailed statement. 

The federal government, she added, has considerably increased funding for Indigenous priorities from $11 billion in 2015 to $30 billion in 2024. 

Martin Olszynski, a University of Calgary law professor, told the Calgary Herald that the SRP funding “wasn’t intended to subsidize well cleanup,” although that was its result. “The primary rationale was about sustaining jobs in the context of broader COVID relief,” Olszynski said. 

With the oil and gas industry having fully recovered from the early pandemic shock, the SRP has outlived its raison d’etre, he explained, emphasizing that the public is not supposed to fund the cleanup of abandoned fossil fuel infrastructure. 

“This is essentially now an industry subsidy. What we’re talking about here is subsidizing well cleanup that should have been done and should be the responsibility of the operators of those wells,” he said. 

By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 22, 2024 at 09:44

This item reprinted with permission from   Alberta Native News   Edmonton, Alberta

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