First Nations want feds to let them use oil and gas cleanup funds not spent by Alberta government

Click to play video: 'Alberta to ‘administer’ $1B well site rehabilitation program'
Alberta to ‘administer’ $1B well site rehabilitation program
WATCH ABOVE: (From April 2020) Then-Alberta premier Jason Kenney announces a $1-billion program, funded by the federal government's COVID-19 Economic Response Plan, for oil well rehabilitation in the province. – Apr 24, 2020

Several First Nation chiefs spoke at a news conference west of Edmonton on Monday to call for the federal government to allow them to access unused funds the Alberta government had received from Ottawa to clean up oil and gas sites in the province.

“Many Alberta First Nations have felt the greatest impacts of natural resource developments which have swept through our lands and ancestral territories for generations, leaving behind environmental wreckage, while being deprived of the opportunity to meaningfully participate or benefit,” Chief Ivan Sawan of Loon River First Nation said in a news release. “We are calling on the federal government to do the right thing and release these funds for the environmental and economic purposes they were intended, so that First Nations can create meaningful job opportunities, clean up our lands, and create a healthier and more prosperous future for our people.”

The funding the chiefs spoke about Monday related to the Alberta Site Rehabilitation Program (SRP), one of several provincial programs that Ottawa committed to providing up to $1.72 billion in funding for to Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and to the Alberta Orphan Well Association to clean up orphan and inactive oil and gas infrastructure.

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Since the SRP began in 2020, the provincial government said about $1 billion in grant funding was approved and allocated to over 500 Alberta-based companies, “resulting in the creation of approximately 4,135 jobs.”

On its website, the Alberta government said about $137 million of the $1 billion in funding “remains unused by grant recipients and the federal government is now requesting all unused funds be returned to Ottawa.”

“Closure work was completed on 1,824 inactive well sites during the Indigenous community grant program,” the post on the government’s website said.

Two provincial cabinet ministers — Energy Minister Brian Jean and Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson — voiced support for the chiefs and their request on Monday.

“These are federal lands and the Site Rehabilitation Program provided dedicated federal funding for an economic relief program,” Jean said in a news release. “If the federal government is serious about reconciliation, we encourage them to release the funds so this important work can continue.

“We look forward to finding more opportunities to continue our collaboration with Indigenous communities.”

Wilson described the SRP as a “tried, tested and true vehicle for economic reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”

Jean, Wilson and the chiefs spoke to reporters about the request at a news conference on Enoch Cree Nation on Monday.

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“We still have many inactive wells on our lands that need to be reclaimed properly; we estimate nearly 2,000 sites which will cost over $225 million,” Enoch Cree Nation Chief Cody Thomas said. “We acknowledge the work that has been done under the SRP but there is more to be done.

“Time is not on our side. We have a very limited land base and a growing population. We must do the necessary land stewardship immediately.”

Global News reached out to the office of federal Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland for comment on the Alberta government’s position on the funding.

In response, Katherine Cuplinskas, the press secretary for the minister’s office, said the federal government provided support to people working in Canada’s energy sector “in direct response” to the COVID-19 pandemic, and “to help keep them on payroll and create more good jobs.”

“Given that they (Alberta government) failed to invest a large portion of the $1 billion we provided them, 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 they signed, and return all unspent funds, as other provinces have.

“Any allegation that the federal government is not helping Indigenous Peoples share in Canada’s economic prosperity, including from the energy industry, is false.”

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Chief Roy Whitney of Tsuut’ina Nation was also at Monday’s news conference and said he believes “too many oil and gas companies have simply walked away from their obligation to remediate their well sites on First Nation lands.”

“The SRP was a way for First Nations to have abandoned sites reclaimed. Accordingly, it was with great disappointment when we learned that the federal government was not going to release the remaining funds for the SRP.”

In March 2023, Premier Danielle Smith said she believes the reason Alberta was not able to spend all of the cleanup money that Ottawa had earmarked for the SRP was in part because of the late start of the cleanup program and extended periods of frozen weather.

Jean said his government has “the money in our bank account and we just need the go-ahead from the feds,” when it comes to the idea of moving the federal funds to the First Nations.

He said redistributing the funds that way could “maintain the momentum that has been achieved by the SRP.”

“Our government has been working hard to enhance Alberta’s reputation as a responsible energy producer while ensuring a sustainable sector for decades to come,” he said. “I can’t imagine a better project than this.”

Jean noted “Indigenous participation” has been a key tenet of the SRP.

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In total, he said the program has seen 103 “Indigenous-led contractors” be responsible for 11,567 reclamation applications to date and that among the SRP’s benefits for Indigenous communities, it has provided Indigenous people with training opportunities.

Thomas said he and other chiefs would like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal officials to meet with them to talk about their request and to “have that open dialogue.”

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