A proposed oil project in northwest Saskatchewan is fueling controversy.
Calgary-based Serafina Energy plans to extract 8,000 barrels of oil per day near Glenbogie, which is near the town of St. Walburg about 250 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. The Serafina Glenbogie SAGD project will require nearly five million litres of water per day from the North Saskatchewan River.
The provincial government said the project does not require an environmental impact assessment, according to a Ministry of Environment document.
That's not sitting well with Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation Chief Ron Mitsuing. He said the project must not go ahead until their questions are answered around water use, waste water and other issues.
"Not right now, until all the concerns are met. For sure, the water and how it's going to affect our lakes. Everything that happens there is going to flow directly to our lakes," Mitsuing said.
Grant Ferguson, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan's Global Institute for Water Security, said more testing should be done before resource projects such as Serafina's are approved.
He said there also needs to be a broader public debate over the best uses for Saskatchewan's finite fresh water supplies.
The government document said the water taken represents 0.03 per cent of the river's total flow. Ferguson noted that amount will be taken out of the water cycle daily for 20 years and thet while the Serafina project is large, it's one of many oil and gas projects removing fresh water from the system.
"At the end of the day, that water is not going back into the hydrological cycle," he said.
The proposed project will extract oil through a relatively new but increasingly popular method called steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). It's used for solid bitumen deposits which can't easily be pumped to the surface through previous cold water methods.
With SAGD, steam is injected hundreds of metres underground and let out through pipes running horizontally through the desired layer of bitumen rock. The bitumen melts and seeps into another pipe, and is then pumped to the surface for processing.
The waste water will be injected into the ground. That's a common method, but in the Estevan region and other jurisdictions the water is released much deeper.
Many of the regulations are federal and provincial, but some of the approvals were granted at the local level. The rural municipality of Frenchman Butte approved Serafina's water intake proposal and its plan to construct a thermal plant, subject to a number of conditions.
When asked if the RM supports the overall project, RM Reeve Bonnie Mills Midgley said the approval process "speaks for itself." Mills Midgley said she and her council may have more detailed comments following a meeting later this week.
Serafina spokesman Chris Bartole said a small initial drill is underway and will be reclaimed immediately afteward.
Bartole said the regulatory process is continuing and they continue to engage with Indigenous communities.
"Our objective has always been to respond meaningfully to any concerns brought to Serafina's attention by First Nation and Métis communities.
He said there's no set date for construction of the main project. The work done on the Glenbogie project is "the most comprehensive assessment ever conducted for this type of development in Saskatchewan."
He said much of the land selected has been recently harvested by the forestry industry or approved for future harvest, and they've taken special precautions to protect groundwater.
CBC News also requested interviews with officials from the provincial government and the town of St. Walburg. Neither request was granted.
Ferguson said the oil and gas industry has a long history in the province and has provided many jobs. That's made government regulators comfortable, even "complacent," about the environmental effects, he said.
"We've gone forward with these things without ever really going through the rigorous environmental assessments done in other places," he said. "We do need better baseline information."
The drilling area includes several plant species deemed "extremely rare," such as Michigan moonwort, white bog adder's mouth and smooth wild rose, according to the Ministry of Environment document. To minimize impact, Serafina is promising to start construction outside of growing season and to preserve topsoil for replanting.
Part of the project is located on pasture or crop land, and the rest is within the Bronson Provincial Forest.