Alberta’s Land-Use Framework (LUF) was released in December 2008 to manage land-use and natural resources in the Province of Alberta (the Province). The Alberta Land Stewardship Act, SA 2009, c A-26.8 (the ALSA) was subsequently proclaimed in October 2009 to empower the Lieutenant Governor in Council (Cabinet) to implement the LUF. The ALSA divided the Province into seven regions, and gave Cabinet the authority to make land-use plans for each region. The Draft Lower Athabasca Integrated Regional Plan (the LARP) is the first draft regional plan released by Cabinet pursuant to the ALSA.

LARP Strategic Plan: Regional Outcomes

The LARP includes the Strategic Plan 2011-2012 (the LARP Strategic Plan), which sets out seven specific regional outcomes for the Lower Athabasca Region: (1) improve the integration of industrial activities on the landscape; (2) encourage timely and progressive reclamation of disturbed lands; (3) manage air, water and biodiversity through management frameworks that take proactive approaches and set limits and triggers, and minimize land disturbance in the region; (4) designate new conservation areas that are large, interconnected and maintain intact habitats to support biodiversity; (5) strengthen infrastructure planning to support future growth of the region; (6) designate new recreation and tourism areas to provide diverse recreation opportunities to local residents and tourism products for visitors to the region; and (7) include aboriginal peoples in land-use planning.

LARP Implementation Plan and the Regulations: Objectives and Strategies

The LARP Implementation Plan 2011-2012 (the LARP Implementation Plan) details the objectives and strategies that the Province has adopted for the implementation of the regional outcomes discussed above. The implementation strategies involve both regulatory and non-regulatory approaches, and much of the regulatory detail is contained in the Proposed Lower Athabasca Integrated Regional Plan Regulations (the Regulations).

The LARP Implementation Plan and the Regulations include the following objectives and strategies:

Landscapes are managed to maintain ecosystem function and biodiversity.

The Province will:

  • expand the regional network of conservation areas such that approximately 1.5 million more hectares (a total of 16 percent of the Lower Athabasca Region’s land base) will be under conservation status;
  • minimize land disturbance impacts;
  • increase tailing ponds reclamation requirements with tailings and reclamation frameworks; and
  • create a biodiversity management framework and land disturbance plan by 2013.

The Regulations provide for the rescission of certain oil sands agreements and metallic and industrial minerals agreements (to be specified) which overlap with the proposed new conservation areas. However, the LARP specifies that existing conventional petroleum and natural gas tenure and development will be honoured in the new conservation areas and provincial parks. The Regulations also specify that a decision-maker shall not issue or renew a statutory consent in a conservation area unless the Minister responsible for the Public Lands Act or the Provincial Parks Act is of the opinion that the activity or proposed activity will protect or enhance the objectives of conservation.

Air and water are managed to support human ecosystem needs.

The Province will adopt additional measures to protect the quality of the air, groundwater and surface water in the Lower Athabasca Region. Three management frameworks will be implemented under the Regulations:

  • Air Quality Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca Region, to ensure that total emissions from various sources do not collectively result in unacceptable levels of nitrogen dioxide or sulphur dioxide in the air;
  • Groundwater Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca Region, to ensure that groundwater contamination remains within the range of natural variability; and
  • Surface Water Quality Management Framework for the Lower Athabasca Region, to protect water quality for current and future uses.

Air and water conditions will be monitored under these frameworks, and contaminant levels will not be permitted to exceed certain specified limits. If a limit or warning sign (i.e., a trigger) as set out in the appropriate framework has been reached or exceeded, the Minister of the Environment must direct the appropriate official to initiate a management response.

The Province has also committed to updating the current surface water quantity management framework to better regulate water withdrawals by the oil sands industry.

Implications for Resource Developers

If implemented as presently proposed, the LARP will introduce an additional layer of environmental scrutiny and compliance into the Athabasca area. While over time the management frameworks may facilitate project applications and compliance obligations, in the short term their implementation and coordination with existing regulatory approvals and processes will create challenges. Resource developers need to be aware of how their operations will be affected by the new operating constraints, and of how obligations under existing regulatory approvals and legislation will interact with the new frameworks. Resource owners with mineral leases overlapping with proposed conservation areas should immediately make contact with ASRD to determine the precise boundaries of the proposed parks and conservation areas that may result in the termination of Crown agreements.