The Alberta government is enacting a sweeping plan for its controversial oilsands region in another attempt to balance development and the environment.
"Alberta's last period of hyper-growth clearly demonstrated the need for responsible long-term use planning," Environment Minister Diana McQueen said Wednesday as she announced the plan for the lower Athabasca region. "In a new time of strong growth, the need to plan for the area that contains our main economic driver is abundantly clear."
The strategy, which comes into force Sept.1, creates six new conservation areas that total three times the size of Banff National Park.
Existing conventional oil and natural gas tenures will be honoured in the protected areas. But no oilsands development will be allowed unless access can be had from outside the boundaries through, for example, horizontal drilling. That means talks will begin for 19 energy companies on cancelling their leases and compensating them.
No new tenures will be sold. The plan also increases protected habitat for threatened woodland caribou by prohibiting energy and forestry activity in the Dillon River Conservation Region, which is to be expanded from 27,000 hectares to 192,000 hectares.
The plan also legally commits the government to establish contaminant limits for air, surface and ground water, and sets up firm timetables for that to be done. McQueen said the limits will be legally enforceable through the regulatory system.
The plan addresses infrastructure and planning concerns in Fort McMurray, and also promises tourism opportunities through nine new provincial recreation areas.