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

Ed Stelmach, the Premier of Alberta
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach speaking at the oil and gas conference Petrotech in 2010/ Credit: Premier of Alberta

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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.”

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.

The draft report notes that the Lower Athabasca region represents the province’s fastest growing source of heat-trapping emissions, amounting to 15 percent of Alberta’s total greenhouse gases. It also emphasizes that the industry has reduced its emissions intensity — that is, the level of emissions per unit of production — by 45 percent since 1990.

Those emissions are a major hindrance for Canada meeting its international carbon reduction commitments, the Royal Society of Canada wrote in its December report “Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry.”

On the water front, the plan doesn’t halt companies from withdrawing water from the Athabasca River during low-flow periods, Grant said. Nor does it identify downstream limits for hydrocarbon pollutants despite recent confirmation of oil sands pollution in the river, she added.

The plan promises to deliver on a comprehensive water-monitoring system. In its December report, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada revealed that Environment Canada has a single long-term water quality monitoring station in the Athabasca River — and it wasn’t designed to check tar sands pollutants.

In another December report compiled at the behest of the Canadian Minister of the Environment, the Oil Sands Advisory Panel included a recommendation urging industry to foot the costs for a state-of-the-art monitoring system.

Senators Pressure Clinton

Seven Democratic senators — none of whom represents states on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline route — wrote a three-page letter to Hillary Clinton last Friday pressing her to answer a series of questions. Their focus is on safety.

For instance, they want to know if the State Department is: collaborating with the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to study safety guidelines for pipelines carrying more-corrosive diluted bitumen; addressing the EPA’s concerns about toxic chemicals used to keep viscous oils sands flowing through pipelines; considering an alternate route for Keystone XL that would avoid Nebraska’s fragile sandhills landscape and Ogallala Aquifer that irrigates crops and supplies drinking water for millions.

“One need look no further than the ongoing impacts on the Yellowstone River in Montana from a leak in ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline to recognize that such risks are very real,” wrote Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Pat Leahy of Vermont, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Due to the international nature of Keystone XL, a State Department team is tasked with reviewing TransCanada’s request for a so-called presidential permit required to cross the U.S.-Canadian border. Clinton is expected to issue a thumbs-up or thumbs-down before December. The Canadian National Energy Board approved its portion of the project in March 2010.

Recently, the Senate has expressed interest in fast-tracking a pipeline safety bill that Lautenberg shepherded through his subcommittee that oversees pipeline safety. The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed what’s called the Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 275) in early May.

Also, talk around Capitol Hill is that the House Energy and Commerce Committee is also considering a draft pipeline safety bill that focuses on studying the safety of transporting oil sands via pipelines.

State Department Update

State Department officials are still in the midst of sorting through the 100,000-plus public comments on the second draft of the Keystone XL environmental review officials received by the June 6 deadline.

A department spokesman did not respond to SolveClimate News queries via telephone and e-mail inquiring what role the Lower Athabasca regional plan might play in its pipeline evaluation and decision.

With its Keystone XL proposal, Alberta-based pipeline giant TransCanada has proposed building and operating infrastructure designed to pump up to 900,000 barrels of heavy crude daily.

It has the potential to double — or perhaps triple — the amount of diluted bitumen flowing to this country from its northern neighbor, though critics say it likely won’t be needed until 2025 or 2030. Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. imports of diluted bitumen grew five-fold from 100,000 to 500,000 barrels per day. That number could balloon to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019.

Back in early June, EPA doled out yet another harsh critique of the State Department’s second attempt to draft an environmental evaluation of the Keystone XL pipeline. In firm yet polite language, EPA overseers said they will be tracking the department’s progress to be sure it directly addresses the agency’s environmental concerns in its final review.

After issuing its final environmental review of Keystone XL, U.S. regulations require the State Department to undergo a 90-day review to determine if the pipeline is in the “national interest.”

Why Lower Athabasca Draft Matters

Casey-Lefkowitz, the NRDC oil sands specialist, emphasized that State Department authorities should be paying extra-close attention to the Lower Athabasca regional plan as they move into the “national interest” phase of the Keystone XL review because it lays out what’s happening on the ground in Alberta.

“This plan does not have any teeth,” she said, adding that the State Department shouldn’t be approving a pipeline in this country that doesn’t adhere to the strictest standards on limiting greenhouse gas emissions and protecting wildlife, air, water and human health. “To make any progress, you need strong regulations and strong enforcement.”

She stressed that the State Department shouldn’t be lulled into hiding behind Alberta’s assertions that this plan clamps down on environmental devastation caused by the oil sands industry.

“The United States can certainly say we don’t need oil that is even more destructive to the environment than conventional oil,” Casey-Lefkowitz said. “We should send the message to Canada that we don’t have a market for dirty oil.”

NRDC and 14 other advocacy organizations wrote a letter published in the Edmonton Journal June 17 asking Alberta to take care of what they called serious weaknesses in the Lower Athabasca draft plan.

Independent Review Necessary

For almost two decades, the Pembina Institute has invested time and energy into figuring out how to mitigate the impacts of oil sands extraction. Grant touts a recent report “Solving the Puzzle Environmental Responsibility in the Oil Sands” as a blueprint for the Alberta government to follow in upgrading the draft plan.

“The solutions we point to are rigorous, but they’re also practical and grounded in Pembina’s consulting work with industry, government and communities,” Grant said. “Our recommendations are consistent with the best available science.”

Pursuing a stamp of approval from independent scientific experts at an arm’s length from the Alberta government and industry, she said, could reassure an increasingly skeptical international marketplace that oil sands development is being appropriately regulated.

Alberta government officials have stated that once the final plan is released and forwarded to the provincial cabinet for a vote, they won’t be fielding any new comments from the public.

But that won’t silence Pembina’s advocates.

“We will be reviewing it carefully and submitting our ideas,” Grant concluded, “regardless of whether we’re asked or not.”