Lower athabasca regional plan will affect oil sands developments



The Government of Alberta has released the draft Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, which it describes as a blueprint for vigorous economic growth, vibrant communities and a healthy environment in northeast Alberta for decades to come.

With oil sands production expected to double within the decade, the draft regional plan will conserve more than two-million hectares of habitat for native species. It will increase recreation and tourism opportunities, plan for infrastructure and put strict environmental limits in place for air, land disturbance and water. 

Some existing oil sands leases could be revoked if the plan is implemented as is. It is estimated that 14 energy companies and 10 mineral companies will be affected by the protected zones. However, conventional oil and gas companies will not have their leases cancelled, officials said. But, their future development will come under greater scrutiny.

Southern Pacific Resource Corp. was quick to release a statement that the plan would have a minimal impact on its development plans.

The plan considered input from an advisory council of individuals with broad experience in the region, and input from the public, municipalities, stakeholders and First Nation and Métis communities. It is the first regional plan developed under Alberta's Land-use Framework.

'We are committed to the responsible development of the oil sands and all our natural resources, and to managing the social and environmental impacts,' said Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight.

An online workbook is available for the next two months and public input sessions begin April 18 in Bonnyville and continue in 14 more locations through May 19.

The plan also includes regional science-based limits to protect the air and water. Through regional planning, as well as other initiatives, Alberta is moving towards managing the cumulative effects of all development on the air, water and landscape.

Management frameworks with science-based limits, and triggers to signal where proactive efforts may be needed to avoid reaching limits, will be in place to achieve the outcomes of the regional plan.

Major additional areas of the Lower Athabasca's land base are identified as new conservation areas, bringing the total for conservation and protected areas to more than two-million hectares of legislatively protected lands in the region - a 20,000 square-kilometre area three times the size of Banff National Park.

Ten new provincial recreation areas and six new public lands areas have been identified, including Lakeland Country as an important tourism destination. Government will work with First Nations on an access management strategy for the Richardson backcountry and to develop historic and cultural sites for tourism in the region.

The draft plan also identifies strategic directions to improve our ability to balance economic, environmental and social outcomes in the region:

  • Improving the integration of industrial activities on the landscape;
  • More timely and progressive reclamation of disturbed lands;
  • Managing air, water and biodiversity through management frameworks that take proactive approaches and set limits and triggers, and manage land disturbance in the region;
  • Designating new conservation areas that are interconnected and support biodiversity;
  • Strengthening infrastructure planning to support future growth of the region;
  • Designating new recreation and tourism areas to provide more diverse recreation opportunities to local residents and tourism products for visitors to the region; and
  • Inclusion of aboriginal peoples in land-use planning.

The draft regional plan emphasizes that private landowners make decisions about how to manage their land consistent with existing provincial and municipal legislation. The draft regional plan does not change or alter property rights.

'No regional plan will be approved until legislation that clarifies our respect for property rights is passed in the Legislature,' said Knight.

Municipal governments maintain authority for local land-use planning and development within their boundaries, but will have to align planning and development decisions to achieve the outcomes established in the regional plan within five years.

The Government of Alberta also identified nearly two-million hectares of potential conservation areas in the Lower Peace Region, connecting to existing and proposed areas in the Lower Athabasca Region and Wood Buffalo National Park.

The conservation areas in the two regions include part of the range and habitat areas for six caribou herds and will advance woodland caribou recovery efforts in Alberta.Work will begin on the Lower Peace Regional Plan in 2012.

Located in the northeast corner of Alberta, the Lower Athabasca Region covers about 93,260 square kilometres and contains most of the province's oil sands, large tracts of Boreal forest and the communities of Fort McMurray, Bonnyville, Lac La Biche and others. Released in 2008, the Land-use Framework sets out a new approach for managing lands and natural resources.

The Alberta government is working to build a better Alberta by fostering economic growth, strengthening our health and education systems, investing in infrastructure, supporting safe and strong communities and ensuring a clean and healthy environment.

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