Protected sites proposed in oilsands area

Alberta is proposing new protected sites in the oilsands region that would cover three times as much area as Banff National Park and force oilsands and mineral companies to surrender rights to land they've already leased

Alberta is proposing new protected sites in the oilsands region that would cover three times as much area as Banff National Park and force oilsands and mineral companies to surrender rights to land they've already leased.

But it allows already planned oil and gas development to proceed even in the conservation areas. And it deliberately avoids protecting any new land in the richest oilsands area where development is heaviest.

About two million hectares of land would come under some form of conservation. That would bring the amount of protected land in the oilsands region to about 22 per cent of the total — the minimum figure that was suggested by an advisory panel in 2009.

But for Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight, it's not about the numbers.

"I'm not chasing numbers," he said. "We're going out to conserve the right area for the right reasons.

"We're going to balance our economic development with conservation — and not only with conservation, but with the social aspect of living and working in Alberta."

The province has been wrestling with intense development in its oilsands region for years and has come under increasingly harsh international scrutiny for the toll industry has taken on its environment.

Tuesday's plan is Alberta's first real attempt at reconciling the demands of developing the world's second-largest oil reserve with protecting the ecosystems that exist there.

The plan would create five large new conservation areas, most tucked in the province's northeast corner. It would also create or enhance a series of small recreation areas.

No oilsands or mineral development would be allowed in those areas. Existing leases would be bought out.

Officials said 10 oilsands producers and another 10 mining companies are affected.

However, leases for conventional oil and natural gas will be honoured, with companies given the rights to build infrastructure such as roads and cutlines as necessary. As well, "ecosystem-based" forestry will be allowed.

Knight pointed out that's no different than what's already the case in most provincial parks across Alberta.

But Mike Hudema of Greenpeace said conservation areas that allow development aren't worthy of the name. He said the plan's real goal is shown by the fact there is almost no new protected land in the heart of the oilsands region in northeast Alberta.

"They're not in areas where there are bitumen deposits," he said. "They're not in ecologically sensitive areas. They're not in caribou ranges. The government is not willing to challenge industry."

Knight shrugs at the charge.

"The sweet areas (with the richest deposits) have not been heavily impacted," he said. "That was by design."

David Pryce of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said industry now needs to hear how they'll be compensated for losing leases.

"We've been told all along there could be implications to tenure," he said. "We need to understand how compensation for that will occur." 

He said the plan represents a clear policy choice that investors can live with.

The plan also comes with a framework for monitoring environmental effects. Knight said measuring those effects will probably be done by a combination of academic scientists, government, industry and aboriginal people and acknowledged it will cost more.

Both Greenpeace and environmental think-tank Pembina Institute called for an independent scientific review of the plan.

"Given the history of environmental mismanagement in the region, an independent analysis of the plan would also help to restore the public's trust in government oversight in the oilsands," said the institute's Jennifer Grant in a news release.

The institute said the plan fails to protect enough woodland caribou habitat and won't halt water withdrawals from the Athabasca River during low-flow periods.

New Democrat critic Rachel Notley echoed the call for an independent review.

"Global concerns about oilsands production, which can hurt Alberta economically, will continue," she said in a news release. "To establish public and international confidence, the government should subject its patchwork and brokered plan to independent scientific review."

But Pryce said the plan should help province's public-relations battle over the impacts of the oilsands.

"It has the potential to help (the government's) case," he said. "I think they've got a pretty good story to tell."

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation criticized the plan for not including any aboriginal input.

"The provincial government consistently fails to meet even our basic expectations to protect air, land and water within the region and fails to meaningfully engage First Nations in land management decisions in accordance with our aboriginal and treaty rights," he said.

The plan will now be subject to a 60-day public comment period. Meetings have been set up across Alberta through April and May.