Climate Beware: Alberta's new wetland policy gives a pass to the tar sands industry, ignores climate change

Source:  The Pembina Institute

This blog was co-authored with Joshua Axelrod.

For the past eight years, the people of Alberta have been waiting for a wetlands policy that would protect its valuable wetlands from massive degradation by the tar sands industry.  Over these eight years, tar sands development has destroyed hundreds of thousands of precious wetlands in Alberta’s boreal forest, one of North America’s most significant remaining carbon storehouses.  In 2008, when Alberta’s initial wetland policy revision was put on the back burner, it was estimated that current and proposed tar sands development would destroy 200,000 acres of wetland.  By 2010, that estimate had climbed to nearly 500,000 acres.  Today, the area threatened by tar sands development has spread to nearly 750,000 acres (an area the size of Rhode Island).

Despite ever-rising concerns that tar sands development will exacerbate climate change, the Government of Alberta announced this week that after eight years of delays, it had come up with a wetlands policy that effectively gives the tar sands industry a pass.  In the face of clear evidence of wetland loss and a growing body of science focused on the critical role of Canada’s boreal forests in climate change mitigation, the Government of Alberta has decided to look the other way.  Indeed, the wetland policy sums itself up quite nicely:  wetland loss in the “Green Area” (read: where tar sand development is occurring) is “not yet fully understood.”  This policy demonstrates once again that the Government of Alberta’s representations to United States leaders that it takes environmental protection seriously are simply not based in fact.

Eight years ago, stakeholders from across ideological and economic spectrums sat down together to hammer out a reasonable, responsible, and forward-thinking policy for managing Alberta’s ecologically critical wetlands.  Three years later, with apparent consensus from all involved, the tar sand industry started playing politics.  Faced with the specter of being responsible stewards of the environment, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Alberta Chamber of Resources (tar sands industry’s advocacy groups) withdrew their support for the policy.  What was their problem?  Apparently mitigating damage to wetlands, estimated to cost no more than a few cents per barrel of tar sands crude, was simply too much to ask for an industry that continues to enjoy significant profit growth.

As tar sands development has expanded it has caused massive destruction of Canada’s precious boreal forest wetlands, which also happens to act as a global storehouse of carbon.  Is there any hope that this alarming trend will slow or ever stop?  Statements by Diana McQueen, Alberta’s minister of the environment, don’t provide much hope.  Despite saying that the government would “try to mitigate” threats to wetlands under its new policy, it is clear that tar sands development and expansion is the priority.  “There will be areas where economic opportunity will happen and be developed,” she said, painting a picture where ecological systems critical to human, plant, and animal life are pushed aside “to be restored in other areas.”

The new policy itself confirms much of what Minister McQueen implied: tar sands development in wetland areas is given priority over conservation and mitigation.  Despite pro-environment language used to frame the policy, one only needs to look at its substance to see the Government of Alberta has given the tar sands industry a pass.

  • LOOPHOLE:  Alberta’s wetland policy enables tar sands developers to simply pay a fee when they permanently destroy a wetland, freeing them from any restoration obligations whatsoever (called “non-restorative replacement”).  This departs from a central tenant of wetland policy, adopted across North America, to assure “no net loss” of wetlands.  Already, 66% of Alberta’s southern wetlands have been lost since the 1800s, and today significant wetland loss is occurring in the north where tar sands development is rapidly proceeding.

Further, use of these fees is limited to research, monitoring, data acquisition, assessments and models, education, or conservation efforts elsewhere.  This bald truth means that the policy enables the permanent loss of wetlands.  Such an outcome makes little sense given that the policy states that where “permanent wetland loss is incurred, wetland replacement is required”   To the easily deceived, this seems like good news and it makes sense—Alberta has faced extraordinary wetland loss throughout its modern history and it is time to address and reverse that trend.  Unfortunately, these words ring hollow and are completely misleading.  It would be one thing if these payments created a fund for government supervised replacement efforts, but such an outcome isn’t even considered by this policy

  • LOOPHOLE:  Alberta’s wetland policy devalues northern wetlands threatened by tar sands development.  The policy’s adopts a “value-based” system for classifying the province’s various wetlands.  Translated, the policy creates a two-track system whereby wetlands in southern Alberta are given a higher value automatically, while wetlands in the north, i.e., in “areas of high abundance and low historical loss” (read: Northern Alberta’s tar sands region) will receive less protection.  In these “areas of high abundance,” Alberta’s policy will simply “acknowledge and promote the importance of wetlands.”  It is not hard to read between the lines of this extraordinarily vague calculus:  where wetlands haven’t traditionally been impacted by human activity, they will automatically be devalued.  This devaluation will then allow for management decisions that simply balance “environmental, social, and economic priorities” instead of the conservation priorities likely to occur in the south.
  • LOOPHOLE:  Perhaps the most significant loophole in the policy is how it effectively exempts the tar sands industry from wetland regulation into the foreseeable future.  Alberta’s wetland policy grandfathers in tar sands projects that have been developed, projects that are in development, and projects that have simply been approved under the Water Act.  Because the policy does not include an effective date or a proposed timeline for action, further delays can be expected.  In turn, this gives an even larger window of opportunity for tar sands developers to begin development of projects that will remain free from significant government oversight.
  • LOOPHOLE:  Alberta’s wetland policy enables tar sands developers to skirt requirements to avoid impacting wetlands.  Despite suggesting that proposals for new development should “avoid all impacts on wetlands,” the policy allows an easy out for developers who show that avoiding impacts is “not practicable.”  Considering that development of Alberta’s tar sands is essentially a one-alternative project (develop or don’t develop) and that job creation and economic development dominate modern political discourse, tar sands developers have a pretty low bar when it comes to showing that avoidance isn’t feasible.  The result?  Freedom to destroy wetlands for a nominal fee.
  • LOOPHOLE:  Alberta’s wetland policy doesn’t even apply to all wetlands.  Despite stating the contrary—“this new policy will incorporate wetlands of all classes”— the policy specifically notes that “ephemeral water bodies are not subject to replacement.”  Loss of these ephemeral bodies of water (those that appear during wetter periods of the year) means an increased loss of critical habitat for migratory birds.  Thus, the policy acts as a sort of one-two punch against wildlife—not only are permanent wetlands put at significant risk for further destruction, those that appear cyclically receive no protection at all.

While wetlands offer a range of benefits including clean water supplies, reducing flood risk, and preserving plant and animal habitats, the policy completely ignores the significance of the role boreal wetlands play in mitigating climate change.  In fact the word CARBON and CLIMATE appear nowhere in the policy.  In Canada, and in Alberta in particular, a high percentage of the boreal forests are covered by peatland.  This peatland is responsible for consuming vast amounts of CO2 and scientists now predict that a loss of only 5% of Canada’s peatland would completely obliterate the carbon sink benefits these lands currently provide.

Alberta’s failure to prioritize conservation of its ecologically and economically priceless resources creates a perverse incentive for developers to race forward with projects that will place ever-greater strains on the fragile wetland systems that make up so much of Northern Alberta.  Americans should not be fooled.  Any proposal that so clearly discounts climate-critical conservation for the benefit of dirty energy production is proof that the Government of Alberta cannot keep its environmental promises.  Allowing the Keystone XL pipeline to cross American soil not only encourages the expansion of tar sands development, it also condones the Government of Alberta’s choose to continue down its path of irresponsible environmental stewardship.