STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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Alberta defers decision on oil sands moratorium

Posted by mhudema on April 22, 2008

DAVID EBNER AND NORVAL SCOTT

CALGARY — The Alberta government has for now dismissed a call for a moratorium on oil sands development, but says it will reconsider the issue in June when the broadly-based group that made the call completes a more comprehensive proposal.

In January, the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), comprising oil companies, federal and provincial government agencies, First Nations and environmental groups, asked Alberta to halt the sale of new exploration rights in three areas around Fort McMurray until 2011.

The group is concerned about the effect on the boreal forest of massive development of the oil sands. It called for the moratorium because it feared development going on now might undermine its plans to propose a new land use framework for the region in June.

While a majority of the association’s members supported the moratorium, there wasn’t a full consensus, with companies including EnCana Corp. and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. saying the January proposals weren’t clear enough.

Last month, the Alberta government told CEMA in a letter that it “will assess” the idea but wants to see the full package of land management proposals. The letter in which the government disclosed its position was obtained last week by The Pembina Institute, an environmental group that’s a member of CEMA.

CEMA has been working since 2005 on a broader plan for land management, which will be considered by its members in June. The group has previously made six recommendations to government, all with unanimous support from its members, and all of which have been adopted.

The January call broke with CEMA’s previous policy of only advancing recommendations that have unanimous backing. At the time, the group said the move was necessary in order to maintain options within Alberta for establishing new conservation areas.

CEMA spokesman Corey Hobbs said the organization is drafting a response to the government’s letter, but is for now focused on completing its broader plan. He wouldn’t comment on whether the government response had damaged relations between the two parties.

The Pembina Institute said there is a “diminishing opportunity for conservation” of the boreal forest in the oil sands region.

Just this year, the province sold leases for new exploration rights for 267,000 hectares of land in the oil sands – an area larger than the city of Calgary.

“The government is de facto supporting the status quo,” said Simon Dyer, an analyst at Pembina.

“By saying we’re thinking about it, but leasing lands as fast as possible, they’re precluding the opportunity for conservation and balance.”

Mr. Dyer also said the government’s decision not to act quickly contrasts sharply with this month’s provincial Throne Speech, which spoke of the importance of economic development alongside environmental protection.

Jason Chance, a spokesman for the Alberta Department of Energy, emphasized the recommendation for the halt of exploration rights in three specific areas did not have unanimous backing.

“There’s a whole range of views,” Mr. Chance said. “That’s why the government said further study was required.”

He added it makes more sense to make a land management decision on a final package of recommendations, rather than “one non-consensus item taken out of context.”

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