Land-use framework flawed

Government plan leaves gaping hole for further development and exploitation

While the province’s politicians and the media swoon over the government’s recently unveiled draft land-use framework the four-year gap between proclamation and implementation in addition to the nebulous details surrounding oilsands development could lead to a surge in applications by industries for new projects and further destruction of the environment say environmental groups.

Released May 21 the framework according to Sustainable Resource Minister Ted Morton will promote “responsible growth a future with plentiful opportunities and a healthy environment.” The draft proposes dividing the province into six new land-use regions based on its major watersheds where a regional advisory council will address each area’s unique needs and priorities. It also recommends that regions adopt a cumulative effects approach that considers the total impact of development and to include Aboriginal Peoples in land-use planning.

According to Rick Schneider senior policy analyst at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Northern Alberta if the draft is translated into meaningful action there will be major improvements in policy planning and decision-making for land-use in the province. “Unfortunately over the past 20 years there has been a pattern in Alberta of announcing land-use initiatives and then shelving them prior to implementation” says Schneider.

With gas and oil prices reaching new highs development in the province has increased substantially in the past decade. According to Alberta Energy the number of applications filed to the energy regulator increased from 19000 in 1995 to 60000 in 2006. Coal bed methane wells in the province jumped from just over 1100 five years ago to over 9300 in 2007. The pace and scale of the development particularly the oilsands and the now notorious lake-sized tailings ponds has some worried growth has exceeded the province’s ability to protect the environment.

“We need to put the brakes on and get some of these risks and uncertainties addressed before more development in the oilsands region can continue” says Pembina Institute policy analyst Jennifer Grant. The Pembina Institute an environmental research group recommends there be a temporary suspension on new approvals and on lease sales to ensure reclamation efforts proceed at an appropriate pace and scale in accordance with development.

On May 27 Pembina released a new report on the policies and practices of oilsands reclamation. Titled Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation it states that in the 41 years of oilsands development in Northern Alberta oil companies have cleared or mined more than 470 square kilometres of boreal forest while only 0.2 per cent or one square kilometre has been certified as reclaimed. In March the government issued its first reclamation certificate to Syncrude Canada for the 104-hectare parcel of land known as Gateway Hill just north of Fort McMurray. Tailings ponds already 50 square kilometres in size are projected to grow to 220 square kilometres an area equivalent to five Sylvan Lakes.

“The details around the tar sands development are extremely vague in the land-use framework and the fact that it’s not actually going to be implemented until 2012 means that there’s going to be a huge rush to get as many different projects approved as possible before then so that companies can come under the old regime” says Mike Hudema spokesperson for Alberta Greenpeace.

According to Morris Seiferling assistant deputy minister for Sustainable Resource Development the government doesn’t foresee a rush by industries to have projects approved before the framework is finalized and new rules and regulations are in place. “We’re basically looking at using the existing policy for making decisions on these kinds of proposals and also to using the due diligence that we always use on making those decisions” says Seiferling.

The government is asking the public for its input on the draft before June 20. Printable versions of the survey and draft framework can be found online at www.landuse.gov.ab.ca or by calling 310-4455 to receive a package in the mail.