Oilsands plan headline overly dramatic

The article headlined Alberta conservation plan stuns oilpatch in yesterday’s Globe and Mail newspaper is way too dramatic. The claim that the announcement “sent shock waves rippling across [the] industry” suggests a northern Alberta tsunami. The reality is that it would be virtually impossible to find an oil company operating in the oil sands which was unaware of the provincial government’s thinking.

First it is important to note that the so-called ‘plan’ is at present nothing more than a consultation document. There is no plan.

Second, any communications consultant would have told the provincial government to do exactly what it did: in the face of mounting international pressure against the environmental effects of the oil sands, launch a game changing concept to make it clear that times had changed and that the Provinces was finally going to get really tough on the oil sands industry, doing everything short of shutting it down (as the Globe and Mail article inferred).

Unfortunately the ‘plan’ is unlikely to be effective. Setting aside 20% of the oil sands area for a conservation area that allows only existing operations is unconvincing as a strategy to significantly reduce the environmental effects of the operations. Much of the plan is vague, lacking in numerical targets and definitive regulations, and where limits are stated, for example in the Surface Water Quality Management Framework, they are limits more appropriate to an already contaminated industrial area than to a pristine wilderness area.

That’s the real challenge of the oil sands debate. Many people, including first nations residents of the area and environmentally concerned people in North America and in Europe, want to see the wilderness areas of Canada’s north kept as pristine wilderness. Oil companies with leases in the area and the Alberta and Canadian governments see it as an area ripe for industrial development, with all of the environmental effects that oil recovery and processing inevitably involves.

The Alberta draft plan will not be sufficient to satisfy those who want to see the Lower Athabasca region of Alberta maintained in a pristine condition. There may be a compromise somewhere but it will involve a much bigger reduction of environmental effects than the Alberta Government has so far put on the table.

For the draft plan and details on public consultations, visit http://environment.alberta.ca/03422.html and don’t believe the Globe and Mail when it tells you that the plan is really tough on industry – it’s a game to try to make you believe that Alberta is really doing something to protect the northern Alberta environment.

Note that comments on the draft must be filed by June 6th, 2011 at 4.30pm Mountain Summer Time. You are asked to file your comments by completing a 48 page workbook that severely constrains the extent and nature of your comments.

We’ll be following progress on this Lower Athabasca Regional Plan proposal in future issues of Gallon Environment Letter.

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