News Articles Featured | Edmonton Journal | August 30, 2011
EDMONTON - On paper, the province's revised plan to protect the Lower Athabasca Region in northeastern Alberta is impressive.
The government is protecting 20 per cent of the oilsands region from development - two-million hectares of land devoted to conservation areas. That's an area three times the size of Banff National Park.
The government is also promising "strict environmental limits to protect air, land, water and biodiversity" as well as "timely and progressive reclamation of disturbed lands."
On paper, the government's plan will also help protect the province's endangered population of woodland caribou.
If only Mother Nature could read. She'd probably be very impressed. So would the woodland caribou.
It would certainly help if all the creatures of the Lower Athabasca Region had a grasp of the written word. A knowledge of maps would be great, too. Then they'd know precisely which 20 per cent of the oilsands region has been set aside for them and which 80 per cent has been set aside for the oilsands companies.
Actually, it would have been great if the government had decided to draw up a plan for the Lower Athabasca before it approved every oilsands plan that crossed the table. It would also have been great if the government had done an environmental baseline study of the region before the oilsands boom so we'd have a better idea of how the industry is affecting the air and water.
Instead, the government is playing catch-up on both fronts. It is only now improving the monitoring of air and water after the federal government promised action - and that only came after University of Alberta scientist David Schindler released an independent study one year ago into downstream pollution.
The provincial government is likewise playing catch-up with its landuse plan for the Lower Athabasca after all the prime real estate for oilsands extraction has been claimed by the industry.
The land being set aside for conservation is pretty much the land the oilsands industry doesn't want.
The government insists its revised plan for the Lower Athabasca released on Monday is an improvement from the plan released last April. It certainly is an improvement if you're an oilsands company.
The original draft plan created a bit of a stink because it would have affected the leases of maybe a dozen oilsands companies (but would not have affected any existing projects). At the time, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers actually said the plan was fair because in the grand scheme of things it would not have a significant impact on the industry.
The revised plan will be even more gentle, affecting even fewer companies. Sustainable Resources Minister Mel Knight was vague on how many companies might have leases cancelled or altered, but it's clear the government is trying its best not to antagonize industry.
And Knight is hoping industry will do its best not to antagonize wildlife. That hope is based on companies developing new ways to extract the bitumen from the oilsands.
"The technology is moving rapidly, and I don't believe we should get out there and say, 'We're not going to have sub-surface leases here because we don't want anybody to go on there and disturb it,' " Knight told reporters.
"They may never have to go on there and disturb it."
The industry wants to move to more in-situ mining, which involves injecting steam or hot water down one hole and pumping up the warm watery oilsands, or bitumen, through another. In-situ doesn't involve strip mining the surface soil away, but it's not exactly hands-off either.
If you've seen pictures of in-situ operations in Alberta, the forests look a bit like a waffle iron with networks of roads criss-crossing a forest floor dotted with well pads and compressors. The ecosystem ends up split into small islands of forest and wetlands.
That worries environmental groups such as the Pembina Institute, based in Calgary. Unlike Greenpeace, Pembina is not calling for the oilsands to be shut down. It wants what many Albertans want: for the industry to extract the bitumen in a more environmentally responsible way.
And it's afraid the newly revised plan to protect the Lower Athabasca Region doesn't really do that.
"The government's efforts to accommodate industry interests are apparent in this version," says Pembina spokeswoman Jennifer Grant. "They have adjusted some protected areas and they have new loopholes that were introduced last week that allow for further exemptions to environmental standards. There are very few significant changes. This was a missed opportunity to strengthen the document."
But it might all be a moot point. The plan to protect the Lower Athabasca might not survive the Conservatives' leadership race. Several candidates, including Gary Mar, have already said the plan has antagonized too many people and should be rethought.
Candidate Alison Redford is worried that "in the rush to get this through, government may not have taken the time to get the regulations right."
Even if the plan does go ahead as Knight wants, it won't actually set any limits on disturbing the land until 2013.
There is a chance that whoever becomes the new premier will bring in a much tougher plan to protect the Lower Athabasca.
And there's also a chance, of course, that we can teach the woodland caribou to read.