EDMONTON — A group representing oilsands and other resource companies says it has convinced the Alberta government to change a plan that would force corporations to spend big money to restore wetlands ruined by mining projects.
Conservationists say if the statement by the Alberta Chamber of Resources is true, it would make a mockery of the province’s promise to develop the oilsands in an environmentally responsible manner.
“The province has agreed to three of the four changes to the proposed wetlands policy that (the chamber) suggested in a letter … we delivered to the Ministry of Environment,” says a report posted on the chamber’s website.
“While the wetlands policy has not yet been implemented, these changes may save literally billions of dollars for our members in the future.”
Alberta currently has no policy to protect or restore wetlands that are ruined by resource development in the northern half of the province, including the wetlands-rich oilsands region.
After years of study, the Alberta Water Council submitted a report to the province saying that vacuum could no longer continue. The council said wetlands are vital to migrating ducks and waterfowl, songbirds, caribou and the overall environmental health of the Athabasca River basin.
The report, submitted 18 months ago, called for a “no-net-loss” policy for wetlands. It recommended that companies that destroy such areas should be required to either restore them, bolster a nearby depleted wetland or build a new one somewhere else in the province.
The government was supposed to have rolled out the policy last spring.
But two organizations in the 25-member water council opposed the recommendation for mandatory action — the Alberta Chamber of Resources and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Together they wrote dissenting letters in 2008 asking the province to making wetlands restoration discretionary.
In its letter, the chamber also said it opposed the concept of “no-net-loss” and suggested the government delay taking action. It also recommended the province not include any existing oilsands projects in any wetlands policy.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in its letter said the cost of such a policy “could exceed billions of dollars.”
Some members of the water council say they are worried the industry’s lobbying efforts have won over a government eager to appease Alberta’s slumping resource sector.
“We are very much concerned that it has been significantly undermined,” said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
“We are worried that by caving in to one sector’s request, we would weaken our wetland policy across the province.”
Other members of the council share those concerns. They’re also unhappy over the delay of a policy that has been in the works for four years.
“We are hoping it won’t be watered down, but we are getting some signals from industry. The Alberta Chamber of Resources is claiming victory over the policy,” said Pat Kehoe, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited.
“Any change that would lessen the imperative of the policy or weaken the application of the policy would be of great concern to us. We have huge wetland resources in this province, but we also have had huge wetlands impacts. We need wetlands protected and restored.”
Brad Anderson, executive director of the resources chamber, says its position on wetlands was posted on the group’s website last year to update members and may now be out of date — even though it remains posted.
“We don’t know where the government is going with this wetlands policy or when it is going to come out,” he said.
Environment Minister Rob Renner says the province hasn’t made a final decision. He wouldn’t commit to an announcement this year even though the policy is already at least one year overdue.
Renner said balancing the need to protect the environment without thwarting resource development is so complex it will take more time for the plan to wind its way through the government before anything is approved.
“It is a misrepresentation to say that Alberta Environment has agreed (to change the proposed policy). We accept arguments that some have made. We take those arguments and we try and maintain that balance,” he said.
“At the end of the day, there needs to be a clear policy that says that there are consequences that have to be acknowledged and have to be dealt with when wetlands are destroyed.”