Fort McKay oil sands ambassador at odds with industry – by Claudia Cattaneo (National Post – September 14, 2013)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

With the Fort McKay band seeking leave to appeal the recent Alberta Energy Regulator’s decision to approve the 250,000 barrels-a-day Dover oil sands project, uncertainty is far from over for Athabasca Oil Corp. and the project’s majority Chinese partner, PetroChina.

Similar uncertainty is poised to spread to other oil sands players in the area, who have been summoned by the wealthy band to a meeting on Thursday to discuss the Moose Lake reserve and why it needs a hefty buffer zone from development.

The upshot: The dispute between oil sands neighbours has the makings of a legal runaway train, a public relations mess and an impediment to good relations between the industry and the most productive and so-far supportive aboriginal community in the region.

As Bill Gallagher, a lawyer, aboriginal expert and author put it: “The oil sands, which undeservedly is continuing to garner an international black eye, now has soured the person who could be the most helpful in putting a happy face on it,” he warned. “[Fort McKay chief] Jim Boucher could have been the most important ambassador the oil sands ever had, and instead he’s going to go to the wall on an issue of vital importance” to his band. Mr. Gallagher believes the Fort McKay’s legal case is strong, and if successful could lead to years of litigation as other First Nations start demanding buffer zones between reserves and projects.

The Dover development, now known as Brion, together with the MacKay River project, were supposed to represent PetroChina’s big entry into the oil sands.

The Chinese company already owns 60% of Brion and was expected to acquire the remaining 40% from Athabasca Oil for $1.32-billion by exercising an option right after the project’s regulatory approval. It already owns 100% of MacKay River.

But the game plan was stalled by opposition from the 700-member Fort McKays, who built significant wealth by providing services to the industry and are oil sands barons in their own right — their reserve sits on two billion barrels of oil.

The band wants a 20-kilometre buffer zone to protect traditional territory surrounding Namur and Gardiner lakes, also known as Moose Lake. A burial ground for ancestors, the Fort McKays regard the area as sacred. Many members built cabins there and use the land for hunting, trapping, fishing and picking berries.

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