October 8, 2007

Cumulative effects environmental policy targets Alberta's industrial heartland

A new cumulative effects-focused environmental policy, unveiled by the Alberta government October 2, will undergo its first application in the province's industrial heartland, a 317-square-kilometre area just northeast of Edmonton.

The comprehensive approach sets out a series of science-based targets, actions and expected results designed to protect the air, land and water of Alberta's capital region. These will apply to all major industrial operations in the region.

"As we face unprecedented growth in our province, with development on a scale we have not seen before, we must be assured we balance that growth with protection of the environment," said Premier Ed Stelmach.

The industrial heartland application will also become the key environmental component of the capital region integrated growth management plan, currently under development. Eventually, this cumulative effects management framework will be rolled out in other areas of the province as well.

"This new framework moves us away from looking at impacts of development on a project-by-project basis, to a system which considers all the potential impacts within a region," said Environment Minister Rob Renner. "Every landscape is different, and this approach allows us to adapt our system to meet the immediate needs of a region, like the Industrial Heartland." He noted that elements of the framework, including the approach to shared objectives, have already been tested through other initiatives such as Alberta's Water for Life strategy.

The plan for the heartland lays out clear targets for air quality, puts in place a water management framework to ensure protection of both water quality and quantity, and establishes guidelines to protect the land in the region. The airshed targets will be validated with stakeholders and are scheduled to come into effect January 2009. The other actions and outcomes are effective immediately. Discussions with the public and affected stakeholders concerning implementation of the plan will take place over the coming months.

Specific actions for the industrial heartland include the following.

*All large industrial facilities within the region will be subject to a cumulative airshed target of 25,000 tonnes per year of nitrogen oxide (NOX) and 28,000 tonnes per year of sulfur dioxide (SO2). These limits will be allocated among all current and projected facilities in the industrial heartland that emit more than 100 tonnes per year of either NOX or SO2.

*Science-based thresholds, baseline data and limits will be established for 100 different parameters in order to ensure that the framework's water quantity and quality outcomes are achieved.

*A water management framework will be developed for the North Saskatchewan River. This framework will set minimum water quantity and quality thresholds, ensuring that adequate river flow, water quality and biotic requirements are met. In addition, a working group has been set up to develop an integrated regional strategy to address water quantity and quality issues, including the possibility of using recycled water from the capital region or other municipal sources for the upgraders.

*Land management measures will include site planning targets to protect wetlands and prevent groundwater contamination; increased minimum setbacks from the North Saskatchewan River; and the development of a sulfur management plan to ensure efficient handling and storage of the sulfur stockpiles. Guidelines for protection of wetlands are already in place, and other issues-such as setbacks and sulfur management-will be dealt with through the approval process.

Alberta's existing regulatory system focuses mainly on managing and mitigating the impacts of individual projects, typically through legislation aimed at specific resources such as timber or water. This focus limits the system's ability to address the cumulative effects of a number of individually regulated projects and unregulated activities, or to consider impacts across air, land and water in an integrated manner.

A cumulative effects management framework will consider environmental implications of development on a regional basis. The existing project-based environmental impact assessment process will be streamlined, with more focus on environmental assessments that deal directly with the shared environmental objectives for the region.

Under this approach, the existing environmental management system will evolve to take into account the cumulative effects of development as part of regular business, rather than as an "add-on" at the end of project design. It will enable the Alberta government to set regional environmental objectives, build external partnerships and develop long-term shared outcomes. Regional assessments and projections will be addressed over more meaningful geographic scales and time spans.

It is important to note that the new approach will not replace existing regulatory requirements for projects, under legislation such as the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, nor will it impose another layer of requirements on industry. Companies will still need to know and be held accountable to enforceable requirements. However, project approvals and other authorizations based on generic standards or on technology will be phased out, to be replaced by approvals based on how particular projects relate to shared regional objectives.

The approach also opens the door to a full spectrum of non-regulatory and policy tools, including economic incentives, education and voluntary action all aimed at achieving the objectives.

The industrial heartland region includes four affected municipalities and has a strong existing industrial base, made up mainly of oil and gas, processing and petrochemical facilities. A significant level of further industrial development is being proposed for the region, including eight more upgrader developments which are expected to process approximately 1.5 million barrels per day.

Comments about the framework are invited, with submission of comments due by November 30, 2007. The policy paper, Towards Environmental Sustainability: Proposed Regulatory Framework for Managing Environmental Cumulative Effects, may be viewed on the Alberta Environment Web site, www.environment.alberta.ca.

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