In headlines, boardrooms and more than a few coffee shops, the dominant narrative about Alberta in recent times has been about oil sands development.
The talk is of the size and scope of economic activity in the vast northeast part of our province, the impacts of development and Alberta’s increasing role in driving the Canadian economic engine.
It is a compelling narrative – the oil sands resource has the potential to help us meet not only provincial and national energy needs but offer security of supply to a growing global community. Too often, however, key storylines are omitted when the focus is only on investment dollars or barrels-per-day production totals.
I believe that is starting to change. I believe the story is starting to reflect the positive steps our province is taking to support this dynamic economic growth and to ensure that we meet our environmental responsibilities and social objectives.
With the ongoing implementation of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, the first plan to be completed under Alberta’s innovative Land-use Framework, our province is entering a new era of responsible, long-term planning that will help us manage growth pressures and the environmental impacts of oil sands development.
LARP, as we tend to call it, was our first priority in meeting the high expectations of Albertans and Canadians that we will deliver enhanced environmental management and orderly growth in one of the most dynamic economic regions in the world.
The regional plan came into effect September 1. It establishes a long-term vision for the Lower Athabasca and sets the stage for robust growth, vibrant communities and a healthy environment over the next 50 years. It recognizes that there is more and more activity on the land, even competing uses, and we need to find a better balance.
Based on more than three years of consultation with thousands of Albertans, the regional plan defines broad regional outcomes, determines specific trade-offs and establishes new environmental frameworks with limits to protect air and surface water quality.
The Lower Athabasca covers more than 93,000 square kilometres of northeast Alberta – an area five times the combined size of Banff and Jasper national parks. It encompasses most of our oil sands, the rapidly growing city of Fort McMurray and immense tracts of green boreal forest. We think big in Alberta and this is a big plan designed to help us address long-term issues.
We have increased the amount of conserved land in the region to more than two million hectares. About 16 per cent of the region is to be managed as new conservation areas. These lands are in addition to the existing six per cent already protected as wildland parks. A bit of perspective – that’s about three times the size of Banff National Park and, I am proud to say, is the largest single-day announcement of new conservation areas in Alberta since the establishment of Wood Buffalo National Park in the 1920s.
The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan also establishes nine new recreation areas for parks, campgrounds and trails for Alberta families and visitors to our province to enjoy for decades to come.
As I said, we think big.
Completing regional plans – we have six more to go – is a priority of our government, under Premier Redford’s leadership.
Regional planning, enhanced environmental monitoring and a streamlined regulatory process for oil and gas operators are supporting pieces of the integrated resource management system that we are building in Alberta.
A more integrated system will provide the best economic, environmental and social benefits for Albertans today and into the future.
Alberta has every advantage – strong, vital communities and abundant resources in a beautiful and diverse natural landscape. People arrive in our province every day looking for a good job and a better future. There is opportunity for people who want to work.
We know that we need to make smart choices about the way we grow. Thoughtful and responsible planning will mean vibrant and healthy communities for Albertans to live, work and play. And it will guide and reinforce our responsibility to the next generation.
This plan is comprehensive, it is thoughtful, but mostly it is a bold statement about our future. It comes at a time when Alberta is poised to re-affirm itself as a significant global energy supplier and a model of responsible energy development.
And that’s a story worth telling.
– Diana McQueen, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development