The Alberta government has released a sweeping blueprint for the Lower Athabasca region designed to balance economic development and the environment in this sensitive oil sands area.
Three years in the making, the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) places strong environmental limits, conserves sensitive lands, and seeks to provide certainty to industry.
The first of seven regional plans under Alberta's innovative Land-use Framework, the LARP addresses growth pressures, supports economic development goals, and institutes responsible environmental management requirements.
'Alberta has every advantage - abundant resources in a beautiful and diverse natural landscape - but in our busy province, we need to make smart choices about the way we grow,' said Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Diana McQueen (pictured above) on releasing the plan.
The regional plan considers the cumulative effects of all activities on air, water and biodiversity.
It establishes new environmental frameworks with limits to protect air and surface water quality and increases the total conserved land in six new conservation areas to more than two million hectares - three times the size of Banff National Park.
The Plan, which takes effect Sept. 1, sets the stage for the next 50 years of development, concentrating on environmental, economic and social actions by:
- Immediately setting regional environmental limits for air and surface water quality and regional groundwater management framework with interim triggers;
- Establishing six new conservation areas, bringing the total conserved land in the region to two million hectares, or 22 per cent of the region;
- Changing the Dillon River Conservation Area from a Public Land-use Zone to a Wild land Provincial Park and increasing the size by 27,245 hectares to 191,544 hectares, thus securing a larger tract of important caribou habitat;
- Addressing infrastructure challenges and new strategies to plan for urban development around Fort McMurray;
- Providing year-round tourism and recreational opportunities through the creation of nine new provincial recreational areas, which will have access to campsites, trails and boat docks;
- Committing to a regional trail system plan;
- Committing to the development of tailings management, biodiversity, and surface water quantity frameworks;
- Committing to engage and work with aboriginal communities on initiatives to incorporate traditional knowledge into environmental planning;
- Identifying opportunities to engage with aboriginal communities on initiatives to support tourism development;
- Providing certainty for industry in development of the oil sands; and
- Supporting diversification of the regional economy - recognizes tourism and recreational opportunities, the potential for further responsible development of energy, minerals, coal, surface materials, forestry and agriculture.
Existing conventional oil and natural gas tenures will be honoured in the protected areas. But no oil sands development will be allowed unless access can be had from outside the boundaries through, for example, horizontal drilling. Talks are scheduled to begin for 19 energy companies affected by the cancelation of their leases.
'The Alberta government consulted extensively on land use in the Lower Athabasca,' said Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers vice-president David Pryce.
'Releasing this plan is a significant step as LARP recognizes the importance of the oil sands as an economic driver while assuring environmentally responsible development of the oil sands resource.'
David Pryce of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers quoted in a Canadian Press article 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.'
More than 10,000 Albertans, including individuals, aboriginals, industry, municipalities, environmental organizations and other stakeholder groups, were engaged in the land-use planning discussions. More than 100 meetings were held with 21 First Nations and eight Métis groups in the development of the LARP.
'As Albertans, we are fortunate to have good job opportunities, live in vibrant communities and enjoy a clean and healthy environment,' said Melissa Blake, Mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
'I see this plan as a blueprint for dealing with present challenges and opportunities, as well as one that will ensure this important and sensitive region continues to thrive well into the future.'
The Alberta government will soon announce plans for the governance of a province-wide environmental monitoring system and will move to implement a new single regulator that eliminates overlap and duplication of regulatory functions.
Implementation of the LARP
The Government of Alberta will implement initiatives under the plan according to the following timeline:
- September 1, 2012 - Implement Air Quality Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca Region
- September 1, 2012 - Implement Surface Water Quality Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca River
- September 1, 2012 - Implement Regional Groundwater Management Framework with interim triggers. (Work on finalizing the groundwater management framework will continue as monitoring data becomes available.)
- September, 2012 - Interim protection in place for all proposed conservation and provincial recreation areas
- December 31, 2012 - Complete an updated Surface Water Quantity Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca River
- December 31, 2012 - Implement enhanced environmental monitoring, evaluation and reporting system
- March 31, 2013 - Establish conservation areas: Birch Mountain Provincial Wildland Park expansion, Kazan Wildland Park
- March 31, 2013 - Establish provincial recreation areas: Andrew Lake, Christina Crossing, Gregoire Lake, Goodwin Lake, Slave River Rapids