EDMONTON - Alberta's plan to balance development and the environment in the oilsands region has already been criticized by industry and environmentalists, but its toughest critics may still be to come — a new Tory premier and cabinet.
"These things are always problematic," acknowledged Mel Knight, who said Monday the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan is now ready for cabinet approval.
"But at the end of the day I think that people recognize this for what it is. They recognize that this is good, solid forward-thinking planning that's absolutely necessary for a province that's developing at the pace this province is."
In April, the provincial government released a proposal for northeastern Alberta that would bring about two million hectares of land under some form of protection — about three times as much area as Banff National Park.
But environmental critics quickly pointed out the plan would allow already planned oil and gas development to proceed — even in the conservation areas. It also deliberately avoids protecting any new land in the richest oilsands area where development is heaviest.
Industry raised concerns about compensation not being clearly spelled out for some companies that would lose lucrative leases. The plan also got caught up in a debate over whether the legislation that enables it shows enough respect for property rights.
Five of the six candidates for retiring Premier Ed Stelmach's job have since backed away from the plan and Monday's version of it doesn't seem to have changed that.
"We need to suspend it," said Calgary candidate and former justice minister Alison Redford. "LARP, for the moment, needs to be not passed until we're able to deal with regulatory issues."
Citing concerns over property rights and compensation, fellow leadership hopeful Gary Mar said in a debate earlier this month that the piece of legislation that enables the regional plans — Bill 36 — needs to be redrafted.
"The land use planning in Bill 36 has to be put on hold. We have to put that bill in a parking lot for now until we deal with the concerns that I'm hearing about."
Doug Horner, a candidate from northern Alberta, said the plan has many good elements, but should be shelved until similar plans are developed for the rest of the province's seven watersheds.
Rick Orman, a former cabinet minister and Calgary oilman, said some sort of land-use plan is needed. But not this one.
"Nobody's arguing with the attempt to be sensitive to the environment vis-a-vis economic growth. The issue is the heavy-handed way that cabinet has conducted this thing."
Doug Griffiths has also criticized the plan, leaving Ted Morton as the lone supporter. Morton was Knight's predecessor and started the process.
Knight said the plan could be considered separately from the concerns over compensation and property rights.
"This plan needs to be looked at completely separate from that," he said. "I don't think there is one individual elected in the province of Alberta that does not believe in long-term proper planning moving forward."
Industry itself regarded Knight's new document with caution, calling it the result of a thorough and thoughtful process.
"Additional work is required on compensation for impacted rights holders, as well as further defining cumulative effects management," said Travis Davies of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "Industry supports policy and regulatory clarity, which makes it easier to plan projects."
Environmentalists said the new plan still has most of the problems of previous versions.
Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association said the current document won't even lay out targets for crucial aspects of planning such as biodiversity and land disturbance for another two years. But she predicted the Conservatives will enact it anyway.
"The international spotlight is shining so brightly on northeastern Alberta I actually do think there is political will to get this one through," she said. "I think they badly want some P.R. points."
Knight said he hopes the plan will be enacted by the end of the year.