On August 22, 2012, the Government of Alberta approved the Lower
Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) which will come into effect on
September 1, 2012. The LARP is the first regional plan to be
developed under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act of 2009,
which empowers Cabinet to make land-use plans for each of the seven
regions in the province. These plans allow the Cabinet to prescribe
conditions, strategies and objectives for development in each
region of the province. The LARP covers the northeast corner of
Alberta and the entirety of the Athabasca oil sands region.
Two previous drafts of the LARP were released in 2011, each of
which were the subject of previous Osler Updates (April
7, 2011 and October
12, 2011). The final and approved version of the LARP is
substantially similar to the latest draft from August 2011.
Key Changes in the LARP
In our view, the most significant aspects of the LARP for
resource developers in Alberta are: (1) the creation of
conservation areas, and (2) the establishment of fixed thresholds
for various environmental components.
The LARP will establish six new conservation areas for the Lower
Athabasca Region, bringing the total conserved land in the region
to two million hectares, or 22% of the total area. These areas are
intended to maintain ecological systems and biodiversity in the
region while allowing oil sands development to continue.
Conservation areas will be closed off to most types of future
development, including oil sands, although existing tenures will
remain valid and will be honoured. Any approvals governing existing
tenures in conservation areas will also remain valid and may be
renewed, however expansions or significant modifications to
existing projects in conservation areas may be deemed incompatible
with the purposes of the LARP and may be denied.
Regional Biophysical Thresholds
The LARP will also establish "Management Frameworks"
– a variety of fixed limits or thresholds for
environmental receptors in the region, such as air quality and
water quality, that are not to be exceeded. The Minister of
Environment and Sustainable Resource Development is required under
the LARP to establish monitoring programs in the region and if the
Minister determines that that one or more of the defined limits has
been exceeded, the Minister is required to issue a notice
specifying, amongst other things:
a. the activities that in the opinion of the Minister are
reasonably expected to have a direct or indirect effect on the
limit in question;
b. the anticipated duration of the exceedance;
c. the actions to be taken by affected decision-makers and
affected local government bodies in response to the exceedance;
d. that no statutory consent shall be issued in respect of a
proposed activity referred to in (a).
Notices of the Minister will be binding on all affected
decision-makers (e.g., the Energy Resources Conservation Board) and
local government bodies.
This aspect of the LARP will be particularly important for oil
sands developers to monitor and understand. If any threshold has
been exceeded or is close to being exceeded, the Minister may be
compelled to release a notice that prevents the developer from
proceeding with their particular project (or at least delays it
until the exceedance is addressed). This will apply equally to
expansions and renewals of existing projects as well as to new
greenfield developments. At the same time, however, these fixed
thresholds for the region will support the province's
recently announced monitoring initiatives with the federal
government and its efforts to address national and international
criticisms of the oil sands.
Implications of the LARP for Resource Developers
The LARP will introduce an additional layer of environmental
scrutiny and compliance into the oil sands region. Resource
developers need to be aware of how their existing operations and
proposed projects will be affected by the new operating
constraints, and how obligations under existing regulatory
approvals will interact with the new conservation areas and
Management Frameworks. If any biophysical thresholds
established in the LARP are exceeded in the future, this could
create significant challenges for any future oil sands regulatory
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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