Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

"The Battle of Marie Lake": Community vs. Tarsand Seismic Operations

Marie Lake cottage owners say 'never' to oilsands seismic survey
Osum believes northern recreational area contains two billion barrels of oil

Gordon Jaremko, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Monday, April 09, 2007
EDMONTON - Call it the battle of Marie Lake.

Plans to sail an industrial mini-armada onto a beauty spot 300 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, for a spring marine seismic survey of an oilsands deposit beneath the lake, has ignited furious resistance.

"Our company hears you," Osum Corp. vice-president Andrew Squires admitted after a three-hour confrontation with an angry, standing-room-only crowd in a south Edmonton hotel conference room last week.

Irate cottage owners, boaters and fishermen turned an information meeting held by the Calgary firm into a protest rally. It was the third "open house" meant to cool tempers by dispensing reassuring facts over free servings of coffee and cookies. But the community turned up the heat.

The group cheered as vocal members seized the microphone and, in the guise of asking questions, broadcast a vision of "our fish being blasted out of the water and crewmen's boots stomping on rare orchids."

The room rang with shouts of "NEVER" in reply to a company representative who asked when the survey could be rescheduled to cause the least offense against the water recreation season.

"Marie Lake is a hidden jewel," cottage owner Cliff Adams explained in an interview.

"It's hard to get to, but once you're there you never want to leave," said the retired Edmonton high school biology teacher, who has owned a Marie Lake lot since 1971.

The place is rare for Alberta. It's no stagnant prairie mosquito hatchery ringed by mud flats and tall weeds. "Marie Lake is a beautiful lake with excellent beaches and clear water," says the University of Alberta's Atlas of Alberta Lakes.

The 35 square kilometres of water,

averaging 14 metres deep, harbours 11 fish species that sustained a mink farm and occasional commercial catches

until 1981. The fish still lure recreational anglers.

But Osum is not out to win a popularity contest. "There are a lot of knowledgeable people that say there is no impact," Squires told the Marie Lake group as he refused to retreat from the planned seismic survey.

The firm is after big game, predicting its 25-square-kilometre lease on a bitumen deposit about 400 metres beneath the lake floor will turn out to contain two billion barrels of oil.

Osum stuck to its plan for 10 survey vessels to generate a three-dimensional electronic portrait of the development target with a month of marine seismic echo-sounding, including about 19,000 shots by 207-decibel air cannons.

A chainsaw makes a 117-decibel racket. A jet aircraft scores 130 on the scientific noise scale.

Jim O'Neil, a veteran biologist with the Golder Associates environmental consulting firm, sought to reassure the Marie Lake crowd. Marine seismic surveys have been done on nearly a score of Alberta lakes with no recorded ill effects, he reported.

"I've never seen a fish killed by this operation," O'Neil said. Warning shots are fired with the volume tuned just loud enough to scare fish away before the air guns make their big bangs.

Osum claims a long, impeccable pedigree for its plans.

"What we're talking about is not new technology or a science project," Squires said. "It's been proven by your own government."

His five-year-old private firm's name is short for oilsands underground mining. The company has raised funds from an array of investment institutions to dig into a thick bitumen formation beneath Marie Lake.

The project is the first attempted industrial use of a production method invented by a former Crown corporation, the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority.

Trial runs were done in the 1980s and '90s at a site north of Fort McMurray known as UTF, for underground test facility.

The contested Marie Lake seismic survey kicks off a five- to seven-year project. It will eventually include a 500-metre vertical mine shaft, horizontal tunneling, upward sloping heat injection and bitumen flow wells into the oilsands deposit, and a pipeline and steam plant on the land surface near the lake.

The Marie Lake group continues to resist in private meetings with provincial officials. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, which has the final say on the seismic program, did not return telephone calls.

But the fight highlighted an issue raised at Edmonton public hearings of the province's 19-member oilsands policy committee.

There is a "critical gap" in Alberta's system of selecting industrial sites, said Environmental Law Centre staff counsel Jodie Hierlmeier.

Unlike regions under federal control, such as the Northwest Territories, Alberta has no procedure for seeking public acceptance of development locations before selling mineral leases that include drilling and production rights.

In Alberta, industry "nominates" or selects oil and gas targets with requests to post them for sale at frequent auctions. A civil service group, the Crown mineral disposition review committee, checks for established environmental restrictions on the land surface involved. The work is done in private and public comment is not invited.

"Mineral tenure is the critical decision point in directing the timing, location and intensity of oilsands development," said a paper submitted to the policy committee by Hierlmeier's 25-year-old, non-profit research society.

"These decisions are made with little or no integration across (economic) sectors, and without thorough environmental reviews or direct public involvement. This process needs to be reformed," the environmental lawyers suggested.


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