I call this meeting to order.
Welcome to the 58th meeting of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.
We have several substitutions this afternoon.
Ms. McPherson is back to replace Ms. Collins. Ms. Pauzé is replaced by Ms. Michaud, who is familiar with our committee, since she has been here in the past. Ms. Goodridge is replacing Mr. Lake, and Mr. McLeod is replacing Mr. Duguid.
Ms. May, it's a pleasure to see you again.
With us, from Imperial Oil Limited, are Mr. Brad Corson, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer; Mr. Simon Younger, Senior Vice-President, Upstream; and Ms. Helga Shields, Manager, Environment, Regulatory and Socioeconomic.
Welcome to our committee today. As you know, we always start with opening statements. You have 10 minutes for an opening statement before we go to rounds of questions.
I see that Ms. Michaud would like to raise a point of order.
You have the floor, Ms. Michaud.
Good afternoon, chair and members of the committee. Thank you for the invitation to be here today.
My name is Brad Corson. I am the chairman, president and CEO of Imperial. Joining me are Simon Younger, senior vice-president of Imperial's upstream operations, and Helga Shield, Imperial's environment, regulatory and socio-economic manager.
I'd like to acknowledge that we are meeting today in Ottawa on the unceded and unsurrendered territory of the Anishinabe Algonquin Nation. In this meeting today, and every day as we carry out our business, we do so on the traditional territories of first nations, Métis and Inuit, who have lived on and cared for these lands for generations. We are all entrusted with caring for the land, and that is a responsibility Imperial takes very seriously. We come today fully committed to our reconciliation journey.
I am deeply apologetic for what has happened at Kearl. We are committed to correcting the situation and ensuring it does not happen again.
Imperial strives to build strong and lasting relationships with indigenous communities based on mutual trust, respect and shared prosperity. We have broken this trust with these incidents and by failing in our commitment to provide sufficient communications to neighbouring indigenous communities. This communication breakdown has led to a significant amount of misinformation, which has contributed to fear, confusion and anger in these communities. I deeply regret that this has happened.
The process of rebuilding trust will take time, and it will require listening and learning. All of us at Imperial have dedicated ourselves to this important journey.
A core principle of Imperial’s business is to operate in an environmentally responsible manner. We work tirelessly to do the right thing, and this situation is not reflective of how we operate and who we are as a company. We are disappointed in this recent performance. We can and will do better—I promise you that.
The two incidents being discussed today represent a failure to deliver superior environmental performance. This is our first environmental protection order at Kearl, which is one too many, and we want it to be our last. I, alongside all Canadians, expect Imperial to meet or exceed the environmental protection standards set by provincial and federal regulators.
I would like to reassure Canadians that we are working diligently to address these issues with the urgency they deserve.
I will now outline what happened and the steps Imperial is taking to clean up, act and communicate following the incidents at Kearl. We have provided a map of our operation to aid the committee in understanding the scope of the two incidents.
The first incident is related to seepage from the Kearl tailings containment system in four isolated areas near our lease boundary, covering a total area of about one hectare.
Last May we discovered pools of discoloured water. We proceeded to inform the Alberta Energy Regulator and local indigenous communities. Discoloured surface water can occur naturally in this region, and we shared with communities that we were investigating the source of this water.
Our investigation was complex and required multiple months of technical studies. Ultimately we determined that this discoloured surface water was made up of natural groundwater and precipitation along with some water that seeped from our operations. Throughout the investigation, we also determined there were no impacts to fish populations in nearby river systems or risks to drinking water for local communities.
The Kearl facility has an advanced seepage interception system that is designed to capture anticipated seepage from the tailings pond into subsurface groundwater. This is a regulatory requirement. Our investigations determined that the four surface pools resulted from seepage that occurred in shallower layers not captured by this system.
We completed all of our regulatory notifications and followed our established process with the indigenous communities for initial notification. However, our communication with indigenous communities fell short: We did not speak directly with the leaders and we did not provide regular updates. I'm sorry for that.
During subsequent meetings with community environment committees, we stated that the matter was still being investigated. We didn't want to go back to the communities until we fully understood the situation and had a finalized plan. However, we should have provided the indigenous communities with the same information we were giving the AER regarding the findings and planned mitigation measures. We recognize that this was a mistake and we have corrected it.
Addressing this situation was and is a priority for our company. There are over 200 people working on remediation efforts, which include expanding our seepage interception system with additional draining structures, pumping wells, permanent fencing to protect wildlife and increased water well and wildlife monitoring.
Regarding the second event, which is unrelated, earlier this year there was an overflow from a drainage pond at Kearl, resulting in the release of 5,300 cubic metres of water. This pond collects water from surface water drainage systems and the seepage interception system.
As is standard policy, local indigenous communities and the Alberta Energy Regulator were informed of this release after it was detected. An environmental protection order was issued shortly thereafter. We profoundly regret this incident. It never should have happened. The water that overflowed quickly froze. All impacted snow and ice in the area were removed and Imperial continues to work with the AER on cleanup certification.
Water from the overflow did not enter any rivers, the closest being the Firebag River, which is approximately 2.5 kilometres away. Monitoring continues to show that there have been no impacts to local drinking water sources, and there is no indication of impacts to wildlife.
The overflow was caused by a combination of equipment problems and process failure. As a result, we are implementing measures on site to prevent an event like this from happening again.
I would like to reiterate that at Imperial, safety and protecting the environment are core values. That includes protecting our people, local communities and the environment.
Kearl has a robust water monitoring program. We first started testing in the region in 2008, years before we began production. Recent tests continue to show that drinking water in the region is safe. However, we understand that this situation has contributed to a lack of trust, and communities continue to worry about their own safety and that of their families, friends and neighbours.
We want communities to feel safe and to know that they are heard. Over the last three months, we have met with leaders and environmental staff and have hosted in-community open house meetings. I have personally met with several chiefs and presidents to hear their concerns and to better understand their expectations of Imperial.
We have invited all communities to visit Kearl to see our remediation efforts and to perform their own water sampling and monitoring, and the majority have done so. In addition, we responded immediately to community requests for drinking water for emergency backup purposes.
We recognize that the traditional lands on which we operate provide water, food and medicine for first nations and Métis communities in the region. We have heard their concerns, and we are very sorry.
I would like to conclude by expressing my sincere apologies again, on behalf of Imperial and all of our employees, for the two incidents that occurred and the related communication shortfalls. We must and we will do better. I can assure you that we are committed to restoring the trust we have broken.
Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today. We look forward to your questions.
Thank you for that testimony. It was nice to hear the land acknowledgement at the beginning. I want to bring to the attention of everyone here that when you went to Fort Chipewyan and did a community town hall nearly a month after these events, you did not do that. You did not start with a prayer and you did not acknowledge the elders. That created a lot more frustration in my community and in the entire region.
I profoundly hope that you have learned a lesson. Going up for a one-hour town hall and not starting with a land acknowledgement and a prayer is not how we do things in northeastern Alberta. That is not how we do things. I hope that is a step towards doing things a little differently.
I was born and raised in the Fort McMurray area. I've lived there just about my entire life. My family has been very involved in oil sands development for three generations now, and I'm raising the fourth generation. This is home.
It was very concerning, because there was no information. There were weeks when there was a vacuum of information.
As part of doing my duties as a member of Parliament, I was in Fort Chipewyan on March 1 and February 28. At that time, I had elders telling me they didn't don't know what was going on but not to drink the water. That was the level of fear, and there was no water there.
I'm wondering whether you can tell us when you provided the community with water and when you provided the community, and the leadership in the community, with information surrounding the breaches.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you very much for being here today and for providing this testimony to us.
Thank you for apologizing. That is certainly important to do.
As an Albertan, as a member of Parliament, and as someone who sat and listened to the testimony of Chief Adams, I'm angry. I'm angry at Imperial Oil, I'm angry at the provincial government, I'm angry at the federal government, and I'm angry at the AER, because you all failed that community.
What you're saying to me, sir, is that there were no adverse impacts. We've all described to you some of the adverse impacts. There certainly were adverse impacts. You have lost the trust to be able to say that we should trust anything you bring forward. You've broken the trust that you have with those communities. You'll forgive all of us in this room for treating all of your testimony with a great degree of skepticism.
You met with representatives of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at the environment management committee three times last summer and fall. You met with them on July 21, September 15 and November 18, and the toxic seepage was never brought up.
You talked about the fact that on May 19 you let them know. On May 19 you said there was discoloured water and vegetation. You never said that these were tailings or that it was toxic sludge that had come up. You had an opportunity to bring this up three times and to say you had worries and concerns about it. You didn't bring it up at all.
Can you explain why on three occasions, meeting with an environmental management committee, your company failed to even raise it?
Thank you to Imperial for presenting today. I certainly appreciate hearing you.
My name is Michael McLeod. I'm the MP for the Northwest Territories. I'm from the region called the Dehcho. I belong to the Dehcho First Nations. I'm Métis. We're recognized as the “big river people”. In the aboriginal language, “dehcho” means “big river”. We've always had concerns about what has gone on upstream, from the time the first logging operations started and farms and everything else put stuff in the waterways, because we're downstream from it.
I appreciate hearing you talk about being concerned and about how people deserve an explanation, but for years and years the north has not had input into what's going on in the Alberta regulatory system, as you probably know. With what's happening now with the leaks from the tailing ponds, people are very concerned. I'm hearing lots of comments and getting calls.
As you said, we need to restore the trust. I think you know as well as I do that indigenous people do not trust government—any level of government—and they certainly do not trust oil companies. If we're going to make any headway moving forward, I think the actions will determine how we rebuild the trust. Many things have to happen, but because we can't get any information and Imperial has not reached out into the Northwest Territories, I think that will be difficult.
I grew up on the Mackenzie River, or the Dehcho. I swam in the river. I drank water from the river. I hunted on that river. I'm very concerned, as is every community down the Mackenzie Valley. Would Imperial Oil support having a meeting in the Northwest Territories to talk about your operations, talk about your future plan, talk about this breach and talk about a cleanup and about whether they'd provide the financial support to have that happen?
That's my first question.
Let me move on, please.
I'm having an issue here with regard to the responsibility for communication to everybody—to the public and obviously to the indigenous bands that were there. I've got a muddle right now. I'm getting responses from this panel that are different from the ones I got from the panel that presented earlier this week. I imagine I might get different responses from the panel that will present next week.
What I want to know, out of this muddle....We're going to have to come up with communication clarity that shows there's confidence in this system going forward and that you can continue to operate without people literally looking over their shoulders about whether their water is safe or not.
Part of what we're looking at here is a mix-up between governments, or between parts of government, as in Alberta's case. The Government of Alberta didn't find out about this until the Government of Canada found out about it. The AER wasn't reporting, it seems, to the Government of Alberta on time. There does seem to be a lack of communication ability.
Ms. Shield, you talked about this EDGE and your responsibility to put it to EDGE. Do you know if there's a communication standard from there about where it goes as far as the various other government bodies are concerned, because I'm telling you, something here failed?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair. I'm going to be giving some of my time to Ms. May.
I want to start with the testimony you heard on Monday. Thank you for coming and for your apologies.
Right now, given the way that first nations and the Métis nations people are feeling, I don't think that apologies are enough. What specific actions are you going to be taking? We say we can't go back and fix what's happened in the past, but we can certainly change processes moving forward.
One of the things that became very clear in the testimony on Monday, which you heard as well, was that these chiefs and representatives of the Métis nations did not feel included. They did not feel included or at the table all along. I'm sure you've heard them talking about the duty to consult and how it's been passed down from one to another. This lack of involvement was exemplified by the fact that this investigation went on for so long, yet despite the relationship you spent years to build, they weren't involved.
I find it very hard to sit here and to say we can go back to the way things were, because I don't think this is.... Although the regulators are at fault, it's not only that; it's the fact that these first nations and Métis nations were not sufficiently involved in these decisions and processes.
How will you change that?
Thank you to Leah Taylor Roy.
Look, Mr. Corson, I'm going to try to put to you, given how short my time is, some facts, and then ask you a question.
You've stated that Imperial Oil has a “commitment” and it has a “principle”. I think you used that word. You used the words that the “core principle” at Imperial Oil is respect for the environment. I put it to you that Imperial Oil and its parent company, Exxon, were some of the most prominent companies in the fossil fuels sector in denying that climate change was a problem. Your predecessor, Robert Peterson, CEO until 2002, continued to say carbon dioxide was good for the environment.
We've known since 2006 that indigenous peoples living near your operations and the whole oil sands sector have had elevated levels of rare and fatal cancers. We've known that fact since 2006, and in 2008 we had the first published scientific papers that the toxic materials from the tailings ponds were getting into the Athabasca River. This is not new information. The corporate record of your company and of your industry is one that doesn't reflect any kind of principle of respect for the environment or human health.
Chief Tuccaro was here on Monday, and you heard him say it: that the sector, and I suppose the regulator as well, have put profits ahead of people.
I just have one question: How do you sleep at night?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Corson, Mr. Younger, and Ms. Shield, thank you for your testimony.
The fact that the head of Imperial Oil is with us today demonstrates the importance your company places on this tragedy, but also the importance of the major problems your company has generated. You have acknowledged your responsibilities very well and apologized. This is a step in the right direction.
Two days ago, you probably heard the testimony of the Aboriginal leaders who came to meet us. Their testimony was very touching, and for good reason. They were the first victims of this situation. The fact that you met with them and that you are here to answer questions from parliamentarians is also a step in the right direction.
However, you know better than anyone that, in order to rebuild credibility and trust, we need concrete actions and measures to ensure that First Nations are partners and not observers of the situation.
Since it is the people of Fort McMurray and the surrounding area who have suffered, I will turn it over to my colleague who represents them in the House.