August 6, 2007

Alberta oil sands MSC report presents vision of how resource development should proceed

After a full year of consultations, Alberta's Oil Sands Consultations Multistakeholder Committee (MSC) succeeded in reaching consensus on over two-thirds of the 120 recommendations contained in its final report to the provincial government. The report, released July 25, also includes a section for consideration by the government, presenting the views of various interests unable to reach consensus on 24 other items.

An Aboriginal Consultation final report released simultaneously makes specific recommendations First Nations and MÈtis would like the government to consider when determining how to respond to the Committee's work.

In submitting both reports to Environment Minister Rob Renner, Energy Minister Mel Knight and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton, MSC chair Vance MacNichol observed two overriding concepts that emerged from the consultations. First, he said, Albertans made it clear that "an orderly pace of development requires responsible environmental management and appropriate development of services and infrastructure."

Second, but no less importantly, Alberta, other governments and stakeholders should work together in an open and collaborative manner to integrate policies, share information and, above all, put a long-term oil sands development plan in place that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of all involved.

The MSC final report's 96 recommendations for strategies and actions are aligned with nine vision elements. The greatest number of these appear in Vision 3, Environment, reflecting the concern for environmental protection and conservation expressed at all public meetings.

Stakeholders were concerned with protecting the air, land and water both during and after oil sands development. The 11 strategies and accompanying actions focus on ensuring good information and management systems, planning on a regional level, gathering baseline data to assess cumulative effects, setting standards to protect human and ecosystem health, and the use of best available technology economically available (BATEA).

Addressed as well is the pace of reclamation, including recommendations for assurances that the public will bear no financial liabilities in this area.

Recommendations on which the MSC agreed covered issues such as improving the cumulative environmental impact assessment process for the oil sands; developing and implementing limits and standards for air emissions and watershed management plans for watersheds within oil sands development areas; reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with oil sands development; and minimizing the impact of oil sands development on the biodiversity of boreal forests. Also recommended were actions to foster the use of economic instruments (e.g. cap-and-trade systems) to encourage sound environmental practices.

Consensus could not be reached on certain critical issues within some of the strategies. Regarding cumulative impact assessment, for example, MSC members were divided on actions defining baseline and assessment in more specific terms. In addressing emission limits and standards, there was also a lack of consensus over the use and interpretation of the term "precautionary principle," and on a specific recommendation to set air emission caps in areas where upgrader development is being (or might be) carried out.

Other non-consensus issues included: GHG intensity targets, implementing reductions consistent with the Kyoto Protocol, requiring carbon neutrality by 2020, suspending new water licences for an interim period, revising the current water management framework, limiting the total amount of land that could be disturbed for oil sands development, establishing an interconnected network of protected areas, and setting aside four specific protected areas (although the MSC members did agree that new protected areas should be established.

The remaining vision elements and their overall themes are as follows.

*Vision 1, First Nations and Métis presents actions aimed at improving the provincial government's interactions with First Nations and Métis to more effectively address issues related to oil sands development. The MSC report calls attention to the fact that the Commmittee reached consensus on all actions within this area, recognizing that impacts on these communities and people must be fully considered as their interests are directly affected by both the provincial government and the private-sector resource developers.

*Vision 2, Quality of Life makes recommendations to use quality of life indicators to measure and evaluate quality of life and assist the province in making decisions to respond to growth pressures.

*Vision 4, Maximizing Value-Added includes proposals designed to help determine the optimal level of value-added activity in the province.

*Vision 5, Healthy Communities calls for actions to ensure necessary levels of health and wellness, and strategies to ensure that there is sufficient planning and established standards.

*Vision 6, Benefits to Albertans and Post-oil Economy focuses on actions to ensure that current and future generations receive a fair share of resource development.

*Vision 7, World Leader in Education, Technology and Skilled Workforce recommends actions to attract, develop and retain a skilled workforce and to co-ordinate research and development policies on world-class technology.

*Vision 8, High Quality Infrastructure and Services addresses the issue of infrastructure and services, notably in the Wood Buffalo area and with particular emphasis on housing, planning and transportation.

*Vision 9, Governance deals with actions relating to planning, legislation and appropriate resources for government departments to regulate effectively, as well as the ability of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) to carry out its mandate under the regional sustainable development strategy.

Formed in the spring of 2006, the MSC represented municipal, provincial and federal governments, industry, First Nations, Métis and environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs). Consultation meetings were held throughout the province, concentrating largely on the three primary oil sands regions: Peace River, Athabasca and Cold Lake.

The MSC's interim report on Phase I of its work, released in January (EcoWeek January 29, 2007), set out a vision and principles for oil sands development. Phase II of the process again sought public input on a range of strategies and actions to implement the vision and principles.

During this period, a separate, parallel First Nations and Métis consultation process was set up to discuss the potential adverse impacts of oil sands development on constitutionally protected rights and traditional land uses. The Aboriginal Consultation final report provides an overview of the separate consultation processes and makes a wide range of recommendations dealing with environmental impacts on land, air, water, fish and wildlife; education, training, jobs and economic development opportunities; impacts on First Nations and Métis communities; communication and relationship building; First Nations and Métis rights, interests and traditional uses; cumulative impacts; consultation policies and processes; and revenue-sharing and economic participation.

As the recommendations within both reports cover subjects that are under the mandate of a number of government departments, the government will fully review both reports before developing a response. The reports may be viewed on-line at www.oilsandsconsultations.gov.ab.ca/.

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