Putting value on ecology

Much of the foundation of the province’s economy over the next several decades rests deep in the oilsands of northeastern Alberta, down the conventional oil and gas wells that dot our landscape, in the thousands of kilometres of pipelines that snake around this province like so many arteries, on the fertile fields and abundant forests.

Much of the foundation of the province’s economy over the next several decades rests deep in the oilsands of northeastern Alberta, down the conventional oil and gas wells that dot our landscape, in the thousands of kilometres of pipelines that snake around this province like so many arteries, on the fertile fields and abundant forests.

But until now, the province has done a spotty, myopic job of managing the relationship between resource development, industrial activity of any number of other kinds (including farming) and environmental protection in general.

The fact that significant steps are being taken in the region around Fort McMurray should not divert our attention from environmental concerns around Alberta, and the miserable job the provincial government has historically done in managing disasters — or preventing them in the first place.

Ask the people who live around Pine Lake, and those whose livelihood depends on the health of the lake. The algae bloom that has been reported this week — not nearly for the first time — is a sign that natural resource protection is not nearly a priority for the province. For decades, the lake has been beset by periodic algae problems, in great part because of nutrient runoff from neighbouring farms.

The Pine Lake Restoration Society has done a great deal to mitigate the effects of human activity around the lake.

But greater responsibility should rest with the province to protect the lake, and others like it.

Ask the people who live in the Sundre region about the June 7 Plains Midstream Canada pipeline leak into the Red Deer River. Or all the users of the river downstream, now and into the future.

The work to clean up the oil mess will cost up to $53 million, according to Plains Midstream, never mind the lives it has disrupted, the businesses it has derailed, the animals it has killed and the habitat it has destroyed.

But it has taken this most recent pipeline disaster, just one of at least three in Alberta this summer alone, to prompt the provincial government to order third-party review of pipeline safety.

Ask those who farm the land where contaminated water has leaked into crops near Joffre this week, from a Penn West Exploration pipeline. In a year when Prairie farmers are enjoying a bumper canola crop — and a buoyant market for canola seed — the leak should be particularly galling.

But there has been at least one significant sign this week that the province is finally beginning to understand that the land cannot just be abused for economic gain.

The provincial government finally unveiled a plan that has the potential to manage economic growth in northeastern Alberta without bulldozing through fragile ecological zones.

The plan creates six new conservation areas that total three times the size of Banff National Park. The zones will provide increased protected habitat for such things as the threatened woodland caribou. And limits on air, surface and groundwater contamination will be established, through regulatory statutes.

The plan is not without its faults: it allows existing conventional oil and gas holdings to remain in place in the protected areas, although it prohibits oilsands development. In these areas, strict limits must be placed on all development — to be enforced to the letter.

And the plan is not without its costs: it will take about $30 million to establish parks and municipal infrastructure in the area. The value of now-invalid oilsands leases in the region is at least $29 million, never mind the revenue energy firms expected to make off those leases (compensation will have to be negotiated).

In total, of course, that’s not much more money that it is costing Plains Midstream to clean up its Sundre mess. So we should accept such costs as the price of averting future ecological disaster.

The premise for this plan, that we need “responsible long-term use planning” in the region, as Environment Minister Diana McQueen said on Wednesday, is remarkably sound.

And long overdue in a province that has too often put short-term gain over long-term sustainability.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.