WASHINGTON—Any day now, the Alberta government is expected to release its final version of a long-awaited, overarching proposal designed to protect natural resources in the northeastern corner of the province laden with intensive oil sands mining.
But if it's anything like the draft first made public April 5, conservationists are prepared to be unimpressed. Yet again.
Their top-of-the list concern is that government officials will continue to favor industry's needs instead of laying out science-based specifics to preserve air, land, water and at-risk species such as the woodland caribou. They also suspect that authorities will continue to refuse to submit what's known as the Lower Athabasca Integrated Regional Plan to outside independent experts for review.
"It's widely acknowledged that Alberta needs a plan," Jennifer Grant of Canada's Pembina Institute told SolveClimate News in an interview. "That plan is supposed to have three pillars — social, economic and environmental. But it's clear economics have overridden some of the environmental goals."
Grant directs the oil sands program out of the nonprofit organization's Calgary office.
U.S. environmental watchdogs are on the same page as Pembina. Their topmost fear is that the U.S. State Department will cite the plan as a sign that Alberta is executing an about-face by holding the feet of the oil sands industry to the fire. They are afraid that conclusion will tilt Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's team toward greenlighting a $7 billion proposed controversial oil sands pipeline.
TransCanada's 1,702-mile Keystone XL is slated to pump diluted bitumen from Alberta's tar sands mines across six states to Gulf Coast oil refineries via a 36-inch diameter underground pipeline.
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, an oil sands expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told SolveClimate News the report indicates how far behind Alberta is on environmental and human health issues.
"Alberta is very much thinking about public relations and planning as opposed to actual action that would reduce the environmental impacts of oil sands," she said. "What we need in the tars sands is strong regulation that forces oil companies to clean up their act. This plan, it's not requiring real change."
Enormous Oil Reserves
Back in late 2008, a newly issued land-use framework laid out a supposedly different approach to managing Alberta's land and natural resources to achieve long-term economic, environmental and social goals. A follow-up stewardship act presented in 2009 divided the province into seven regions or watersheds.
The Lower Athabasca region, one of the first plans put on the table, covers about 36,000 square miles abutting neighboring Saskatchewan. Government officials gave the public two months to respond to the plan after it was circulated in early April.
As Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has announced he will be retiring this autumn or winter but hasn't announced a firm date yet, word on the street is that he doesn't want a long delay in delivering the final regional plan for Lower Athabasca.
About 1.3 million barrels of crude are produced daily in the oil sands, a number that is expected to more than double within the decade, according to information in the 70-page draft plan. What is referred to as the world's second largest petroleum reserve — Saudi Arabia is ranked first — is estimated to contain at least 1.71 trillion barrels of diluted bitumen.
"Our oil sands resource represents a unique economic opportunity for Alberta — an opportunity to be a world energy leader through optimizing opportunities for development, while ensuring our environmental responsibilities are met," the report states.
"Alberta is well-positioned to deliver on this through continuous improvement in how we explore for, develop and extract our oil sands resources, through a strong regulatory system and an emphasis on new technology and innovation. Alberta is committed to optimizing the economic potential of the resource, but will do so in ways that are environmentally sustainable and socially acceptable."
Oil sands wealth, the report continues, gives Albertans access to world-class infrastructure, education and health care, as well as low tax rates. Investment in the oil sands is expected to reach $14 billion this year, a gargantuan jump from $490 million in 1991. Investments peaked at $20 billion-plus in 2008.
'Problem of Substance'
This is by no means Alberta's initial attempt to craft a proposal centered on land use and the oil sands. Efforts have been in the works for more than a decade when officials spearheaded what's called the Regional Sustainable Development Strategy but nothing concrete had come to fruition.
This time around, watchdogs were expecting more from a team that includes three provincial agencies: Sustainable Resource Development, Alberta Environment and Alberta Energy.
"The Progressive Conservative government seems to be acting as overindulgent parents, unwilling or unable to challenge industry," noted Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada. "In fact, this government gave industry even more than was asked for. It's like giving a 3-year-old an entire pie after they ask for a piece."