The Alberta government has released a long-awaited policy for protecting wetlands that it says will save the most important areas while allowing economic growth in the face of heavy development pressure.
But critics say the new policy — seven years in the making — could allow companies to simply buy their way out of wetland compensation, especially in the oilsands region.
"If the trade-off is I can buy my way through, I don't think that's the right approach," said Joe Anglin, environment critic for the Opposition Wildrose party. "I think there needs to be checks and balances."
The policy, which applies only on Crown land, will grade wetlands across the province according to their scarcity and importance to the local environment and people. It won't come into effect until 2015.
All oilsands projects now before regulators will be exempt.
Wetlands are considered environmentally vital because they filter run-off, buffer floodwaters and provide highly diverse habitats for a range of plants, birds and other animals.
Anyone seeking to develop wetlands will first be required to try to avoid them. If that's not possible, developers will have to minimize damage. In cases where wetlands will be destroyed, proponents will have to suggest alternatives, such as restoring a wetland in a different part of the province or creating an entirely new one. They may also simply pay into a fund to support wetland research or management.
"Economic opportunities will happen and will be developed," said Environment Minister Diana McQueen. "We'll try to mitigate those as much as possible or they'll have to be restored in other areas."
She said although wetlands will be evaluated by government, decisions on mitigation or replacement will be made by stakeholders including industry, environmental groups and municipalities.
"We'll be working in partnership."
Details remain to be worked out. As well, McQueen said safeguards to prevent proponents from immediately turning to compensation payments are not yet in place.
Published academic research has found that Alberta regulators routinely give little consideration to avoidance or mitigation, allowing developers to pay into a fund that's supposed to create or restore affected ecosystems elsewhere in the province.
New Democrat environment critic Rachel Notley said the policy is a major retreat from the so-called no-net-loss standard, which was shot down by the resource industry ... in 2010.
"This plan clearly drives a truck through that," she said. "I don't think the Redford Conservatives can be trusted to look at the value of wetlands in a flexible setting without predictably capitulating to what industry's looking for."
The Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, made similar criticisms.
"Alberta needs to implement a policy that requires urban and industrial developers to restore a wetland every time a wetland is destroyed," said spokeswoman Jennifer Grant.
She added the 2015 implementation date is too far off and lets too many proposed developments off the hook.
"Thousands of hectares of wetlands were lost while this policy was being developed. More than 300,000 hectares of wetlands — or an area four times the area of the City of Calgary — are at risk from oilsands development."
Provincial limnologist Thorsten Hebben said a no-net-loss policy won't work.
"No net loss is too rigid," he said. "It doesn't consider the value of the wetland on the landscape."
The new policy will allow leaders to consider economic, social and environmental values when deciding what to do with a threatened wetland, he said.
That flexibility was applauded by Brad Herald, Alberta manager of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
"(The government) has it right," he said. "It's flexible enough to balance the environmental and economic outcomes."
He said the association will continue to work with the government to develop the procedures to implement the policy.
— The Canadian Press