Alberta tries again to balance oilsands, environment

The Alberta government is taking its third swing at balancing development and the environment in the oilsands.

The Alberta government is taking its third swing at balancing development and the environment in the oilsands.

Environment Minister Diana McQueen unveils plan Wednesday. (CBC)

The latest version of the province's plan for the lower Athabasca region creates six new conservation areas that total three times the size of Banff National Park, says a briefing note provided by Alberta Environment.

Existing conventional oil and natural gas tenures will be honoured in the new conservation 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.

Increases protection for caribou

The plan also increases protected habitat for endangered 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 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.

Industry will also have clear rules about what it can and can't do, the note says.

"Alberta has every advantage: abundant resources and a beautiful and diverse natural landscape. But ... we need to make smart choices about the way we grow," Environment Minister Diana McQueen said Wednesday.

"Responsible and long-term planning in this dynamic region will mean vibrant and healthy communities for families to live, work and play."

Two previous plans abandoned

Two previous attempts to provide some sort of planning for the region foundered — one because it didn't provide enough environmental protection and one because of industry concerns that it provided too much.

Alberta introduced its first try strategy in 2005. It proposed that oilsands extraction would be the priority in the entire area.

Environmentalists called it a formula for turning the entire region over to industry and the plan was rapidly shot down.

The next one was introduced by Mel Knight, who was environment minister at the time, in April 2011.

Energy companies quickly voiced concerns that that version would mean they'd lose access to some oilsands deposits that some firms had already bought leases for.

They wanted to know how they would be compensated.

Environmentalists still didn't like it either. They pointed out the plan would allow all proposed oilsands developments to proceed — even in protected areas.

They also said the plan deliberately avoided setting aside land in areas where development pressure was heaviest.

Plan is response to critics

The second attempt died as all Tory candidates vying to replace retiring premier Ed Stelmach backed away from it, including his eventual successor Alison Redford.

The latest land-use plan is intended as the first of many 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.