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FEBRUARY 18, 2009, 1:57 PM

Alberta Addresses Oil Sands’ Gigantic Footprint

On the eve of President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Ottawa on Thursday, the Alberta government has released what it describes as a long-term “strategic” plan for developing the province’s oil sands — a subject likely to be on the agenda for tomorrow’s working meeting.

The 50-page document, entitled “Responsible Actions,” was published less than a week after both the federal and provincial governments laid charges against Syncrude Canada over an incident last April, when about 500 ducks died after landing in one of the company’s giant tailing ponds. The deaths attracted international media coverage and galvanized opponents of the massive bitumen extraction operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The government’s document, two years in the making, is the result of public hearings and consultations with stakeholder groups representing both industry and environmental groups. Among the recommendations, it suggests the government will:

  • Exercise more vigilance in enforcing reclamation of tailings ponds and “disturbed” areas;
  • Encourage oil sands producers to “maximize” water conservation;
  • Establish a carbon offset program to “secure” sensitive areas;
  • Consider the possibility of increasing bitumen royalties as a means of investing in infrastructure in and around Fort McMurray.

Not surprisingly, the report hasn’t blunted criticism of Alberta’s management of the resource. “This is a plan to do more planning,” says Simon Dyer, the oil sands project director for the Pembina Institute, an environmental advocacy group based in Calgary. “It’s quite disappointing in terms of the lack of specifics. There’s no time lines and no accountability.”

Mr. Dyer says that when the government-appointed panel traveled around Alberta, most deputants called on Alberta to take tougher measures in managing oil sands development. “That’s not reflected in the plan at all.”

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation yesterday, President Obama said he believes technologies like carbon sequestration can contain emissions from bitumen upgraders and added that he’s interested in a continental approach to energy and environmental policy. “One of the promising areas for not only bilateral but trilateral cooperation is around this issue.”

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