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Chiefs call on federal government to keep funding in Alberta oil and gas well remediation program

First Nation chiefs in Alberta say leftover money from a pandemic oil and gas site remediation program should stay in the province to clean up Indigenous land.

The money was part of a $1-billion federal program managed by the Alberta government to stimulate the oil and gas industry during an economic downturn. The province says contractors couldn’t spend $137 million of the money by the Dec. 31, 2022 deadline. And that the federal government now wants that money back.

“The failure to allocate those resources would mean abandoning over 2,000 sites on First Nations lands and territories,” Enoch Cree Nation Chief Cody Thomas said at a news conference on Monday.

“This is not just an environmental concern, but a moral imperative to uphold our collective responsibility to future generations.”

The province says during the three-year site rehabilitation program, it approved nearly 35,000 site cleanup applications, creating more than 4,100 jobs.

More than 100 Indigenous-owned companies were responsible for about a third of the successful applications. During one phase of the program targeted at just Indigenous contractors, 1,824 inactive well sites were reclaimed, according to the province.

The chiefs say the cleanup grants created local jobs and helped Indigenous entrepreneurs establish businesses and expertise to keep doing environmental reclamation work.

“We actually had people crying to see this land being returned back to its natural state,” Frog Lake First Nation Chief Greg Desjarlais said.

“We had people working, We had people feeding their families.”

Several chiefs said the federal government, as regulator of the oil industry on First Nations land, allowed companies to abandon some sites without leaving money to ensure they were later reclaimed.

Loon River First Nation Chief Ivan Sawan described the scene on his reserve, which is 420 kilometres north of Edmonton.

He said a driver can see a pump jack at every turn. Abandoned wells and pipes are on land the First Nation could use to build housing for its growing population, he said, and the river is so contaminated that treating drinking water is prohibitively expensive.

“We need Canada to listen to us as Indigenous communities,” he said.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) website says there are currently 170,175 oil and gas wells across the province that are either inactive or abandoned.

To date, workers have remediated 139,571 wells in Alberta.

Although the AER pegs the cost of cleaning up all remaining wells at $33 billion, industry critics say that figure is likely an underestimate.

Alberta Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean says the province still has the leftover federal cleanup money in the bank and is ready to direct it to Indigenous contractors. Jean initially wrote to the federal government asking for permission to do this on Feb. 21, 2023 — more than a year ago.

“If our federal government is serious, if our Prime Minister is serious about reclamation and the environment and Indigenous Canadians and Indigenous Albertans, one way is they can support it is by authorizing Alberta right now to use the funds we have in our bank account,” he said.

The federal finance department has not yet responded to a request for comment from CBC News. 

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