On October 2, 2007, Alberta Environment released its new environmental plan intended to address cumulative effects of development in the fast-paced energy development centres of the province. The purpose of the revised environmental regulatory framework is to address cumulative effects of such development which has until now been undertaken on an individual application, or project-by-project, basis. The report states that due to Alberta's tremendous growth in recent years and the anticipated further development of the oilsands, now is the time to develop a cumulative effects management framework that addresses and balances environmental, economic and social implications of development on a region-by-region basis. In its policy paper entitled Towards Environmental Sustainability: Proposed Regulatory Framework for Managing Environmental Cumulative Effects, Alberta Environment states:
Achieving the appropriate balance between environmental protection and economic development is ultimately a matter of societal choice. We need to understand the tolerance the environment has for human activities and choose a balance of social, economic and environmental objectives.
Alberta Environment has stated that the current system is not set up to appropriately address the cumulative impacts of a number of individually regulated projects and unregulated activities. The current regulatory framework does not address proposed projects' impacts on air, land, water and biodiversity in an integrated manner accounting for the larger area in which it is set to operate. The intent of the new plan is to phase out individual project approvals that are currently based on generic standards, and instead replace it with an approval framework that assesses how a particular project interacts with shared regional objectives.
Regional assessments will include a more streamlined environmental assessment process that will focus on shared environmental objectives for each particular region. This "results-based approach to protecting the environment" is said to be driven towards setting "environmental targets that reflect environmental risks and the social and economic values of Albertans." The government states in its plan that this approach will allow the province to "anticipate future pressures and put in place ways for Albertans to choose the appropriate balance." The plan's focus is on protecting Alberta's air, water and land.
The proposed system is intended to create, place-specific outcomes, taking into consideration the "social, economic and environmental implications of meeting those outcomes." An initial implementation is going to be carried out in three specific regions within the province that have already established a strong existing industrial base of oil and gas, processing and petrochemical facilities. These regions include the Industrial Heartland, a 317 square kilometre area just north-west of Edmonton, one in east central Alberta and one in southern Alberta. The new approach is not intended to replace the existing project regulatory requirements, nor is it intended to represent a form of deregulation. It is however, intended to operate within the existing regulatory framework enabling a number of non-regulatory and policy options, including economic incentives, education and voluntary action, all aimed at achieving the objectives set out by the government of Alberta.
Under the cumulative effects management framework, emissions of the entire Industrial Heartland will be managed to ensure that air quality is not diminished. All large industrial facilities within this region will be subject to a cumulative airshed target of 25,000 tonnes per year of NOx and 28,000 tonnes per year of SO2. The Government has stated that these targets will be reviewed every 5 years to take into account the state of air quality in the region and emissions reduction technologies that become available. The targets are said to be effective as of January 2009.
Water Quality and Quantity:
In addressing the issues of water quality and quantity the Industrial Heartland Project is intended to set minimum thresholds to ensure that adequate river flow, water quality, and biotic requirements all exist. The plan states that a commitment to meeting trans-boundary water quality and quantity commitments will continue to be a fundamental part of the water management framework. Alberta Environment has said it is committed to working with stakeholders, including industry, watershed groups, municipalities and downstream users, to assess these outcomes, as well as the adaptive and cooperative management principles that will be enacted as part of the new framework.
Development and growth in areas such as the Industrial Heartland have resulted in a rise of competing interests. The increase of competing interests in these areas have led to an increase in development and use of land resources which have caused impacts to wetlands, groundwater, soils, wildlife and landscapes. The intention of the proposed plan is to "protect the regional wetlands and groundwater, ensure that soil is conserved and land is reclaimed, limit impacts from air emissions on soil, and mitigate any potential harmful changes to wildlife or habitat."
In summary, Alberta Environment is seeking integration and innovation with respect to its future environmental management. The government is currently piloting new environmental sustainability management systems throughout the province at different scales to test the pressing cumulative effect issues and to test the approach so that it may discover what amendments need to be made. Consultation is currently taking place and interested parties may submit their comments by email to AENVsustain@gov.ab.ca until November 30, 2007.