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Toothlessness of Alberta's Final Oil Sands Plan Worries Conservationists in U.S. & Canada

U.S. watchdogs fear the plan could tilt the State Department to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline

Jul 21, 2011
(Page 2 of 4 )
Ed Stelmach, the Premier of Alberta

The same week that the latest plan was released, Canada's Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff chastised Conservatives at the federal level for boosting the industry's image instead of acting to protect the environment from the hazards of oils sands mining.

"It's not going to be fixed by better public relations," Ignatieff told the National Post. "It's a problem of substance.

"No, we have a environment problem here and it needs to be addressed," he continued. "[We should] get the federal government back into the business of regulating watershed use, wildlife — the things that are in our wheelhouse, in our jurisdiction. In other words, [we should] address the substance."

Ignatieff's insights came on the heels of three separate reports issued in December 2010 that doled out withering criticism on Canada's subpar efforts to oversee, monitor and regulate oil sands. The first came from the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, the second from the Royal Society of Canada and the third from the Oils Sands Advisory Panel.

Many of the First Nations are upset with the draft plan because they claim their concerns and recommendations went unheard. For instance, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the plan infringed on treaty rights allowing them access to traditional hunting, fishing and trapping grounds because it protected too little land and resources.

The plan represents "an economic assimilation of our people," Chief Allan Adam said in announcing his opposition. "How can we maintain our culture, protect our livelihood and continue practicing our treaty rights under these conditions?

"Alberta is doing more of the same thing and expecting a different result," he continued. "The provincial government consistently fails to meet even our basic needs when it comes to air, land and water within the region and fails to meaningfully engage First Nations in land management decisions in accordance with our aboriginal and treaty rights."

What About the Caribou?

"The framework of the plan is good and we support that," Pembina's Grant said about the draft plan. "It's just that the pieces that need to be in place are not all there yet. And the odds of them filing those gap in a couple of months are unlikely."

One egregious shortcoming she pointed to is land designated for permanent protection. For instance, planners opted to defer for two years a decision to limit how much acreage can be developed at any time.

Even though the government lauds itself for setting aside roughly 7,719 square miles, that number is remarkably puny when studies show the tar sands lie beneath roughly 54,000 square miles. Protected areas would be off limits but industrial logging would be permitted on acreage designated as a "conservation area." Plus, a full 85 percent of the land designated for protection is likely of little or no use to the oil sands industry because the landscape is too rocky.

Such shortsightedness, conservationists say, threatens the area's wildlife. For instance, not outlining how mine waste should be managed until next year will continue to harm migratory birds that die by the thousands after seeking refuge in tailings ponds.

Grant critiqued the plan's authors for protecting very little habitat for the declining woodland caribou and booting any substantive decision-making on that issue ahead two years. The newest plan calls for preserving 11 percent of the ungulates' habitat.

"That will lead to more uncertainty, conflict and lawsuits around the management of this iconic and threatened species," she said.

Scientists have predicted that the caribou herd east of the Athabasca River could go extinct within three decades unless significant changes are made to oil sands mining practices. As well, the Canadian government has admitted that Alberta has mismanaged caribou by disturbing close to half of the habitat for 12 of the 13 distinct local populations.

"If this is approved by the [Alberta] Cabinet, there's no telling if these missing pieces will be provided in time," Grant said. "And how many projects will sneak through in the meantime?"

Progress on Air, Not Water

Conservationists did praise planners for addressing air quality by restricting emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide but questioned why they didn't address pollutants such as particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

In a six-page response to the draft, Pembina challenged planners to steer away from subjective terms such as "unacceptable air quality" and set specific scientifically based standards to protect air quality and human health.

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