On February 12, 2009, the Government of Alberta released its 20-year plan for the development of the oil sands, titled Responsible Actions - A Plan for Alberta's Oil Sands (the Strategic Plan).5 The intent of the Strategic Plan is to set a new direction for oil sands development that better addresses economic, environmental and social challenges, particularly within the Athabasca, Cold Lake, Peace River and Fort Saskatchewan regions.

Long-term Vision

The Government of Alberta's vision for the oil sands is for the resource to be developed responsibly, in a manner that sustains industrial and provincial growth over the long term, and simultaneously enhances the quality of life of Albertans. To achieve this vision, the Government notes that the right balance must be struck between development on the one hand, and environmental protection, social responsibility and economic success on the other.

In pursuing the long-term vision, the Government has established four guiding principles:

  1. Healthy environment and communities, promoting responsible stewardship, managing social impacts and improving quality of life.
  2. Balanced growth, maximizing the long-term value and benefits of the oil sands and increasing competitiveness, while also taking into account other non-monetary factors in oil sands development.
  3. Collaboration, encouraging cooperation and participation among all levels of government and key stakeholders and, in particular, Aboriginal communities.
  4. Public interest and accountability, fostering input and communication with all interested persons, and supporting the market with sound government policy and regulatory structures.  

Strategies and Objectives

The Government has also developed six strategies to achieve the Strategic Plan's long-term vision, and has enumerated a variety of objectives to support each strategy.

  1. Environmentally Responsible Development

To do this, the cumulative effects of oil sands development should be effectively managed to protect air, land, water, biodiversity and human health. In particular, regional thresholds should be developed to protect human health and the ecosystem, and industry will be required to use the best available technology that is economically achievable, which has not consistently been a requirement. Reclamation efforts will be enhanced and enforcement increased in order to protect the environment and minimize Crown liability. Specifically, tailings will be required to be reclaimed regionally at the same rate as or faster than the production of new tailings, and meeting land reclamation requirements may become a pre-condition to further development. In addition, biodiversity within the oil sands region should be maintained by increasing conservation and providing for additional protected areas within the oil sands regions. It is also noted that Alberta's greenhouse gas reduction objectives should be met or exceeded, which will necessitate the use of cutting-edge technologies. Finally, the Strategic Plan gives more "credit" to organizations involved in managing and monitoring environmental performance, stating that these organizations should be strengthened and included collaboratively in discussing development initiatives.

  1. Quality of Life and Community Promotion

Creation of a quality of life and promotion of communities that will attract and retain people, families and businesses is the second strategy. Success in this strategy requires supporting ongoing development in communities in the oil sands regions, with social and infrastructure needs identified and various financial models considered to address these needs. Public safety and security requires improvement, including in the areas of law enforcement, traffic safety, health prevention and treatment initiatives and workplace safety (particularly with respect to foreign labour). Investment in physical infrastructure in the oil sands regions, including working with industry to consider industry's contribution to such infrastructure, and using alternative financing approaches will also be required.

  1. Maximizing Value

The use of economic growth, stability and resource optimization to maximize value for all Albertans will be essential. Albertans must receive appropriate economic returns from oil sands extraction, which can be achieved by ensuring an adequate royalty structure that is responsive to changing conditions, and potentially through the establishment of a transparent bitumen market. Value can be maximized by encouraging upgrading and value-added petro-chemical development within Alberta with fiscal and regulatory approaches. Additional markets for the products and services derived from Alberta's oil sands can also be sought, which may be facilitated by the development of pipelines to new markets. Industrial infrastructure should also be maximized by addressing workforce needs, including increasing participation of Aboriginal communities and establishing partnerships between industry and all levels of government.

  1. Aboriginal Consultation

Communication with and between the Federal Government and Aboriginals should be strengthened and should be characterized by clarity and consistency. In particular, the input of First Nations groups should be sought to better understand potential cumulative environmental impacts on these communities. Cooperation with Métis groups should also occur where Métis lands could be affected.

  1. Innovation

The maximization of research and innovation will be necessary to minimize environmental impacts, improve access to oil sand deposits and reduce costs. Alberta should be further developed as a centre of clean-energy research, which may involve funding certain types of research and creating networks to promote innovation at the grassroots level. Policy and regulatory structures should encourage or require the investment in sustainable development technologies by industry, including by way of government-industry partnerships, incentives and the sharing of government-funded research findings. A research and innovation portfolio that is long-term, balanced and responsive should be facilitated.

  1. Transparency

The Alberta Government has also emphasized a need to increase access to information, develop measurement systems and enhance accountability with respect to oil sands management. Transparent and effective measurement systems should be created to monitor social, economic and environmental performance. Effective data-management systems should also be created to assist in planning in the oil sands regions, and a policy with respect to data sharing should also be created.

Intended Outcomes, Success Factors and Priority Actions

The Government of Alberta intends that the outcome of the Strategic Plan will be optimized economic growth, a reduced environmental footprint, and improved quality of life for current and future Albertans.

For the Strategic Plan to be successful, it is necessary for government to ensure that regulatory structures are well-defined and stable, that industry and government make long-term commitments to the development of the oil sands, that collaboration and communication among stakeholders and levels of government is clear, inclusive and effective, and that technological innovation is properly supported.

The Government has also highlighted four priority actions in the Strategic Plan, being environmental stewardship, strengthening communities, economic prosperity and building relations. The Strategic Plan does not currently explain how these priority actions fit within the Strategic Plan.

Conclusions

While the Strategic Plan contains few specifics, it does suggest a greater emphasis on balancing various priorities, with a focus on the environmental, social and economic consequences of oil sands development. A move away from an ad hoc approach to a more directed approach is also apparent from the Strategic Plan. How dramatically government policy will be altered as a result of the Strategic Plan remains to be seen.