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Total SA oil sands ambitions hit snag

Total headquarters near Paris.

JACQUES BRINON/Jacques Brinon/Associated Press

A federal-provincial panel adjourned a hearing into a Total SA oil sands project, providing a boost for a coalition of environmental groups opposed to the French energy giant's plans.

A joint review panel decided to delay the hearing late Tuesday, on the first day of its examination of the Joslyn North Mine, after critics argued that the company's environmental assessment filings were inadequate.

"The joint panel adjourned the hearing to deliberate upon a number of important and complex rulings on matters including questions of constitutional law and filings of information," Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board said in a statement.

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The panel expects to rule on those matters next Monday and reconvene "no earlier than" Tuesday, the ERCB said.

"We understand that the hearing is a thorough process, and that the panel has to consider several complex issues before the hearing can continue," Gary Houston, a Total vice-president who serves as panel chair for Joslyn North, said in a statement. "We remain confident in our project and look forward to presenting it to the Joint Review Panel and to the public when the hearing resumes."

The decision comes as a victory to groups who believe the company's environmental assessment did not adequately address the proposed mine's cumulative effects.

"We are confident the panel will instruct Total to conduct a proper cumulative impact assessment," said Simon Dyer, the oil sands program director for the Pembina Institute.

Oil sands projects are required to study the impact of their own proposed work in combination with other development activities in the area in which they plan to operate.

In a motion filed Tuesday, the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition argued that Total didn't properly examine the potential impact of forest fires or lumber harvesting in the area it plans to mine. The groups also accuse Total of failing to account for the potential additional disturbance that might come from two other nearby oil sands projects - Frontier and Equinox - although both of those projects remain at a very early stage.

The coalition is made up of Pembina, the Toxics Watch Society of Alberta and the Fort McMurray Environmental Association.

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Total bought a 75 per cent interest in the Joslyn project, which is located 65 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray, in 2005. The proposed mine would produce 100,000 barrels of oil a day. Total hopes to have it running by 2017.

CLARIFICATION: A three-person federal-provincial panel temporarily adjourned a hearing into Total SA's proposed Joslyn North oil sands mine. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.

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Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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