EDMONTON — The Alberta government is enacting a sweeping plan for its controversial oilsands region in another attempt to balance development and the environment.
“Alberta’s last period of hyper-growth clearly demonstrated the need for responsible long-term use planning,” Environment Minister Diana McQueen said Wednesday as she announced the plan for the lower Athabasca region.
“In a new time of strong growth, the need to plan for the area that contains our main economic driver is abundantly clear.”
The strategy, which comes into force Sept.1, creates six new conservation areas that total three times the size of Banff National Park.
Existing conventional oil and natural gas tenures will be honoured in the protected areas. But no oilsands development will be allowed unless access can be had from outside the boundaries through, for example, horizontal drilling. That means talks will begin for 19 energy companies on cancelling their leases and compensating them.
No new tenures will be sold.
The plan also increases protected habitat for threatened woodland caribou by prohibiting energy and forestry activity in the Dillon River Conservation Region, which is to be expanded from 27,000 hectares to 192,000 hectares.
The plan also legally commits the government to establish contaminant limits for air, surface and ground water, and sets up firm timetables for that to be done. McQueen said the limits will be legally enforceable through the regulatory system.
“There will be thresholds and triggers and targets. We will work with industry so that they will know they can’t go over those numbers.”
The plan addresses infrastructure and planning concerns in Fort McMurray, and also promises tourism opportunities through nine new provincial recreation areas. A regional trail system is also promised.
McQueen said it will cost about $30 million to set up infrastructure for the new parks.
Simon Dyer of the environmental think-tank Pembina Institute called the plan a good start.
He said it was “problematic” to allow existing energy and mineral tenures to continue in conservation areas, but welcomed the exclusion of oilsands mining. He did point out that the conservation areas are clustered where there is little bitumen.
“I think we’re going to have to revisit this, particularly around caribou,” Dyer said. “The plan only protects around 20 per cent of caribou habitat in the region and caribou continue to decline.”
Nor does it address the growing greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands, he said.
“Alberta needs to take a similar level of seriousness to address growing greenhouse gas pollution.”
David Pryce of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said the plan is one that the industry can live with.
“The overall product is very good,” he said. “The province tried very hard to strike a balance over where the value of the resource is and I think they’ve done a pretty good job of it.”
Pryce said companies that will lose oilsands leases are likely to seek compensation for both the value of the lease and the profits they won’t be able to earn.
“The lost opportunity cost is an important part of the discussion for industry.”
The purchase value of the leases is about $30 million, said McQueen.
Two previous attempts to provide some sort of planning for the region foundered.
The latest land-use plan is intended as the first of seven that will ultimately cover the entire province and guide its development.
It’s part of the government’s response to both Canadian and international critics that oilsands development has gone too far, too fast, and that it has outstripped the government’s ability to regulate it.
That response also includes an extensive and expanded program of environmental monitoring for the oilsands region being implemented by the federal and provincial governments.
Monitoring work has begun, but the province has yet to detail how it will be funded and how much independence it will have. A report on how it should be overseen was delivered to both levels of government at the end of June, but has not yet been made public.