Wetlands policy under water

Lobbying threatens wetlands policy warn conservationists

A lack of political will coupled with backroom negotiations by industry heavyweights threatens to weaken the province’s long-delayed wetlands policy say conservationists.

“It’s really going to take a significant political shift in this province if we’re going to see this policy actualized in a way that focuses on protecting the environment” says Sheila Muxlow campaigner with the Sierra Club Prairie chapter. “And not just appeasing the interests of oil and gas and mining.”

In 2005 the Alberta Water Council established a multi-stakeholder group which includes oil and gas mining agriculture and forestry industries as well as environmental groups and several provincial government departments to develop guidelines for wetlands restoration.

After three years of public consultation with industries and government the AWC produced a rough draft of its policy — one supported by 23 of its 25 members.

The two holdouts the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Alberta Chamber of Resources (ACR) had asked for several changes included nixing mandatory replacement of lost wetlands and changing the wording to allow for more “flexibility” during future negotiations with the province on wetland mitigation.

The Sierra Club has obtained a leaked draft of the policy which incorporates several of the revisions recommended by the two industry associations.

“It seems like simple wording” says Muxlow. “It really does mean the difference about whether they can be held accountable for the impact they have on wetlands or talk their way around it.”

Wetlands cover about 117400 square km of Alberta’s landscape 90 per cent of which are peatlands — a type of wetland that CAPP’s vice-president of western operations David Pryce notes in a July 2008 letter is “impossible” to restore.

Meanwhile the ACR is pushing for a “net loss of wetlands” for large mining projects in unsettled green areas like Alberta’s northern boreal forests because those areas have not “experienced the high historic loss of wetlands” and therefore have a “higher resiliency.”

In letters to the water council the two energy associations call for a non-replacement option — then they could opt out of wetlands restoration in favour of education and outreach programs. Restoring wetlands could go into the “billion-dollar range” they note.

Carolyn Campbell an Alberta Wilderness Association conservation specialist says the province should make it costly to “destroy wetlands.”

“If that does mean that oil and gas extraction becomes too expensive and less profitable that’s a positive thing” she says. “It’s very frustrating to see that kind of activity continuing without a provincial policy to minimize the damage to those wetlands.”

But a spokesperson with Alberta Environment says conservationists’ fears are unfounded. Cara Tobin suggests the leaked draft is almost a year old and has likely been changed.

She adds the non-replacement option which may not be in the final version expected later this year won’t let industries off the hook. “Just because there is a cost association with reclamation doesn’t mean that they’re not going to have to do it” she says.

The government is looking at the broad picture one that is good for the entire province including industry says Tobin. “We’re looking at a flexible framework that works for the whole province and that means that it will apply to all industry for all different types of wetlands.”

But Campbell warns that being flexible would open the door to an even weaker policy. “Project proponents would be very aware of what’s going on and they would point to other developments saying ‘It’s not fair for us to do this if they’re not’” she says. “That sort of pressure would lead to the lowest common denominator which is the opposite of what the provincial policy is supposed to do — set a standard which is clear and consistent.”