Development activity in the north-eastern Alberta is staged for significant growth over the next 50 years or so. New and expanded projects to extract and process the oil sands are expected to produce growth in production and result in increased stresses on the environment in the region and beyond.
The Wood Buffalo Region of north-eastern Alberta has long been the home of aboriginal peoples, dating back at least 9,000 years. As early as the mid-1700’s, this area was visited by European explorers and fur traders – making it one of the earliest areas of Alberta explored by non-Aboriginal peoples. An economy based on natural recourses harvesting and trading was started then and continues to the present time. Treaties with the First Nations People were signed in this region over one hundred years ago (1899). Starting in the 1930’s interest in the bitumen from the oil sands in the region began to grow as demand for petroleum products increased. In the late 1960’s intensive industrial development of the region began to occur.
Oil Sands Development and Cumulative Effects Concerns
The new era of oil sands development in north-eastern Alberta began in the mid – 1990’s. Due in part to lower production costs and higher oil prices, a record number of applications were made for new projects and for the expansion of existing oil sands operations in the region. This development resulted in questions about the ability of the environment to handle the level of projected growth and development in oil sands extraction and upgrading. It also resulted in increased stakeholder concern over the potential combined, or cumulative effects that increased levels of industrial activity could have on the environment—on the land, water, and air. Cumulative environmental impacts could potentially affect environmental quality, biological diversity, and/or human health, resulting in habitat loss, wildlife loss, and a reduction in air and water quality.
Regional Sustainable Development Strategy (RSDS) for the Athabasca Oil Sands Area Initiated to Address Potential Cumulative Effects
In the late 1990’s, the Alberta Government took steps to initiate a strategy to address potential cumulative environmental effects in the oil sands region. The intent of the strategy was to provide a framework for managing cumulative environmental effects and to ensure sustainable development in the Athabasca oil sands area. In 1998, in conjunction with regional stakeholders and other regulators, Alberta Environment led the creation of the l RSDS for the Athabasca Oil Sands Area. The Strategy was based on the anticipation of greater than $ 12 billion worth of new capital investments in the oil sands region. The RSDS identified and prioritized 72 environmental issues within the oil sands region that should be studied in light of the projected growth. Issues were divided into a list of 14 themes and three priority categories. A great deal of work and collaboration went into deterring which issues were most pressing and important to the community and to the environment. The Strategy was published in 1999 and the diversity of environmental values and interest in the region prompted the need for a multi-stakeholder forum to establish environmental management objectives for the region.
Cumulative Environmental Management Association formed to Address RSDS Issues
A stakeholder group, the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), was formed, to address 37 of the RSDS issues. This was a partnership of industry, aboriginal groups, non-government agencies and Alberta Environment and Alberta Sustainable Resources Development, The remaining RSDS issues not falling under CEMA’s mandate were to be addressed by existing government mandate or other regional initiatives. CEMA’s goal was to provide recommendations to Regulators on managing potential cumulative environmental effects using an array of environmental management tools such as environmental limits or thresholds.
Priority Issues Areas
CEMA’s priority-level environmental issues were initially developed through the Regional Sustainable Development Strategy (RSDS) issues by Alberta Environment in July 1999. The initiative identified 72 priority environmental issues in the oil sands area. CEMA is responsible for addressing 37 of those issues. The CEMA priority issues included research and recommendations on the following:
- Air Contaminates
- Culture and historical resources
- Fish habitat
- Ground level ozone
- Landscape diversity
- Surface water quality
- Trace metals
- Wildlife habitat
In December 2008 the Government of Alberta embarked on a new approach to managing cumulative effects by releasing the Land-use Framework and announced the development of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) which proposes a framework for managing a number of key land, air, and water issues within and beyond CEMA’s current geographic area.
The RSDS issues that were previously identified and provided guidance o establish CEMA’s priorities were now replaced by the new regional plan. At the same time CEMA undertook a major review of its governance and structure to be more responsive to the changes taking place in north-eastern Alberta.
In response to these events, the Government of Alberta and the CEMA Management Committee carried out a number of initiatives to address the challenges facing the Association. The Government of Alberta supported two independent third party reviews by Price Waterhouse Coopers (2008) and Integrated Environments and Tumbleweed Consulting (2009). The CEMA Management Committee initiated a Revitalization Strategy in 2008 and 2009 to address many of the identified challenges. As a result CEMA adopted the present Mission and Goals; CEMA adopted a sector-based Management Board supported by sector caucuses (aboriginal, industry, government and non-government organizations) with decision making authority vested with the sector representatives on the CEMA Management Board; an Aboriginal Coordination Committee was established to help facilitate coordination of and communication among the Aboriginal members of CEMA and to support them in more meaningful participation in CEMA; a formalized issue identification process was developed as a standard CEMA business practice; and, the Management Board undertakes a regular, formalized process to prioritize issues based on member and government issues.
The new governance model and structure were approved and implemented in 2010. The GoA has also adopted an Integrated Resource Management Strategy (IRMS) which now includes a single energy regulator, a new monitoring system, land use planning and aboriginal consultation. (Details on IRMS can be found at http://oilsands.alberta.ca/2827.html) With the implementation of this strategy, the GoA has initiated another review of CEMA in 2014 to clarify the role of CEMA in this strategy. This once more leaves CEMA at a crossroads with the possibility of further changes to the organization.
A Look Ahead
Needless to say, 2014 was a very interesting year. And as it currently stands, CEMA will leave 2014 with the same, if not more, uncertainty it greeted it with.
CEMA did not receive confirmation of funding for a 2014 program until mid-January. Then the $5 million that it did receive came with the condition that “no new projects” were to be funded. This required CEMA having to define what constituted a “new project” and prioritizing the $8 million worth of projects put forth by the working groups.
CEMA arrived at an approved work plan of just over $5 million. Recommendations and Guidance documents were submitted to the Government of Alberta, projects were completed on time and within budget and most telling, new organizations applied for membership in CEMA.
Another condition put on the 2014 budget was that Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) was to conduct a review of CEMA relative to the department’s activities. At the 2014 Annual General Meeting, department representatives outlined the Integrated Resource Management Strategy (IRMS) adopted by government which they define as “all about ensuring we understand the impact our growth has on our communities, our environment and each other as a whole.”
The review of CEMA was based on CEMA’s role as a multi-stakeholder organization in northeastern Alberta and how we would contribute to the IRMS functions. It went even further, producing a transition plan with options as to how CEMA could inform and contribute to the IRMS functions in the future.
The third-party review resulted in a report that was presented to the CEMA Board in early December. At the same time, the Board was informed that $5 million was approved for 2015, but again, no new projects were to be part of our 2015 work plan.
At the end of 2014, the Board was working to finalize its response to the report. As the review report advocates the merger of CEMA with other multi–stakeholders in the region into a new advisory council, it would result in some significant departures from how CEMA currently operates. These serious ramifications include the recommendation that CEMA will no longer be able to continue conducting its much needed research to inform Government policy. It would also jeopardize CEMA’s much respected ability in bringing diverse groups to the table for a truly collaborative sharing of knowledge. Some CEMA members have already indicated that such a change would result in a reassessment of their desire to stay involved at the CEMA table.
Meanwhile, CEMA, its Board, Secretariat, members and stakeholders are working diligently with a view to present the GoA with a plan to continue our role as a respected and valued environmental management association that remains a key advisor to governments and others.