Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Appeal Court ruling muzzles opposition to Alberta oil and gas development

Owners of private property may be the only people who have the right to speak at public hearings into proposed oil and gas developments on public land. This is the fear of conservationists after the Alberta Court of Appeal declined to hear the appeal of a man who regularly hikes and camps on public lands, leaving him with no right to speak at a public hearing into a proposed sour gas development near those lands.

The ruling upholds the June decision of the Alberta Energy and Utility Board to deny standing to Michael Sawyer, 50. Shell Canada Ltd has proposed to drill two sour gas wells near Beaver Mines, 100 km southwest of Calgary.

Mr. Sawyer had asked to participate in the Board hearing on the grounds that he had used the crown land near the proposed wells for 30 years to hike, fish, hunt, and enjoy with his family. Having been exposed to sour gas while camping in northern Alberta, Mr. Sawyer was concerned that the wells could pose a significant risk to his and his family’s health and safety. He argued that his views would assist in tailoring emergency plans for recreational users of the area in the event of a blowout.

When sour gas wells are developed an emergency plan is devised to minimize the risks. Even low-level exposures to sour gas can be lethal.

The Board denied Mr. Sawyer’s request for standing on the ground that he was not an owner of private property in the vicinity of the proposed development. At the Appeal Court, however, lawyers from Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund) said that Mr. Sawyer should be allowed to address the Board at a public hearing set for Sept.18, as the law does not require Mr. Sawyer to be a property owner to participate. It simply requires that he have a legal right or interest that could be directly affected by the wells.

The denial of Sawyer’s request to appeal could eliminate public hearings for nearly all oil and gas projects in Alberta, as most occur on crown land (80 % of the province).

“This sad ruling confirms legislation that denies the public right to enjoy public lands, and puts corporate interests ahead of public health and environmental protection – it’s time to change the law,” said Margot Venton, Senior Staff Lawyer with Ecojustice.

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