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Athabasca Oil founder steps down after Dover project gets government's OK

CALGARY - The founder and chairman of Athabasca Oil Corp. (TSX:ATH) is stepping down a day after its Dover oilsands project received a long-awaited green light from the Alberta government.

William Gallacher, who founded the company in 2006, has chosen to resign from the company's board of directors so he could "concentrate on his other endeavours," the company said in a release Friday.

Gallacher will be replaced by current board member Thomas Buchanan, effective immediately.

The Alberta cabinet's approval Thursday is one of the last hurdles Athabasca must clear before its Chinese partner can take full control of the development. The company is still awaiting a final sign-off from the Alberta Environment.

Once all approvals are in hand for Dover, PetroChina, currently with a 60 per cent stake in the project, has 30 days to exercise its option to buy out Athabasca's 40 per cent interest for $1.3 billion — which would be a much-needed cash infusion for Athabasca.

"Athabasca is now entering a phase where operational excellence is key to its success," Gallacher said in a release.

"My goal was to see the company through to a clear path to assure its long term funding. I feel this has been achieved with the recently announced Order in Council for the Dover Commercial Project."

A similar process took place in 2012 for the McKay River oilsands project, with PetroChina opting to buy Athabasca's stake for $680 million, making it the first oilsands project to be fully controlled by the Chinese.

For Dover, however, the process did not go as smoothly.

The nearby Fort McKay First Nation wanted a 20-kilometre buffer zone around the Dover project, but the Alberta Energy Regulator denied the request and approved the Dover project last August.

In October, the band won the right to challenge the AER approval on constitutional grounds. It dropped its lawsuit last month.

Alvaro Pinto, the band's director of sustainability, said the Dover partners have agreed to environmental protections for an area the band was most concerned about.

Pinto said the agreement included a financial component as well as promises of business opportunities.

The proposed five-phase Dover project aims to eventually produce 250,000 barrels of crude a day using steam-assisted gravity drainage technology.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story; An earlier version said the project would be 40 per cent owned by PetroChina

The Canadian Press

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