There is no aspect of environmental protection at which the Alberta government has not failed. Both in terms of planning and regulation, the PCs have shirked their responsibilities as stewards of the priceless ecosystems that sustain health and life.
Poor environmental planning
Consider the disappointing the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan released in 2014. There are some good parts of the SSRP. Creation of the Pekisko Heritage Rangeland has been called “brilliant”.
But the Plan is terrible, in particular on the failure to provide for proper watershed management and to protect endangered species in the region. The basic problem is the provincial government failed to make the tough choices necessary to preserve the ecological integrity of the region. Instead it treats conflicting interests as being of equal worth and thus the job was to “balance” them, presumably so as to keep everyone a little bit happy.
But this doesn’t make the grade. The problem is that the government’s responsibility, which then-minister of environment and sustainable resource development Robin Campbell acknowledged to be “environmental stewards,” cannot be satisfied in this half-baked way. Like pregnancy, ecological integrity is an either/or proposition. You either have that integrity or you don’t.
If the South Saskatchewan region hadn’t already been overstressed, by logging and off-road vehicle use, for example, the task of planning for its future might not be so demanding. But the laissez-faire attitude taken in the past means that to protect ecological integrity into the future requires the making of tough choices, such as telling the off-roaders their access has to be reduced to meet conservation and water management goals. This would have taken both a clear analysis of what is at stake in the region (good thinking) and also the courage to say no (good leadership). We got neither.
This bad thinking and failure of leadership will cost Albertans big time. It’s difficult to quantify the loss of species, such as bull trout and grizzly bear, in dollars. It’s not only difficult but also foolish to assess in money terms what is lost when the tranquility we seek in pristine wilderness is destroyed by the noise and disruption of motorized vehicles nearby.
But the costs that attend the destruction of the water-absorptive elements of this region are more readily measured: by contributing to the likelihood of further, destructive flooding in southwest Alberta, the failures of the SSRP will cost Albertans a lot of money.
At $ 6 billion and still counting, the 2013 Alberta flood was the most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history. In 2014 southwest Alberta flooded again, as it has several times over the last 20 years. The climate has changed, and to overlook the seriousness of the flooding hazard in southwest Alberta is a fatal weakness in the SSRP.
As has so often been the case where successive PC governments have failed on their environmental responsibilities, there is no excuse: the provincial government was warned of the SSRP’s deficiencies. Many critical assessments of the Plan were submitted before the final draft was prepared. For example, James Early of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and Friends of the Kananaskis wrote: “Treed areas are able to absorb 65% more rain water than bare or grass-covered land. The SSRP … continues to allow clear-cut logging and fails to protect any more than the peaks of our mountains above timberlines. … [G]reater protection of the slopes and valleys through which these waters run is also key to ensuring clean water for all, and would also greatly assist in flood prevention and mitigation.”
Shoddy environmental regulation
The government does a bad job of environmental planning, but it is also a failure at environmental regulation. CNRL’s tarsands project at Cold Lake spewed bitumen for a long time and for months no one knew why this had happened or how to stop it.
What’s going on here is reckless industrial activity allowed to run amuck by a government and regulator that doesn’t know what they are doing. Harsh? Yes, but apparently also accurate.
And sometimes the regulatory failures are intentional as when companies are explicitly mandated to regulate themselves. The provincial government has been known to regulate companies using new technology by hiring people from the company in question to do the examination of that very company’s project. Then when that “regulatory” task is completed, those very people go back to work for that same company again.
This is the fox guarding the hen-house. The very company whose proposals are supposed to be reviewed to make sure they meet government standards necessary to protect Albertans and the natural systems they depend upon is assessing whether those standards are being met. Nothing could be a more blatant conflict of interest.
It cannot be said too often: this is fake, not authentic, regulation and thus an insult to the intelligence, dignity and trusting nature of Albertans. And by making a mockery of government regulation it undermines the rule of law.
It doesn’t have to be this way
A government that was serious about protecting Albertans’ environment, health, and economy – for as we have seen, the failure to take environment seriously is harming efforts to sell Alberta bitumen into American markets – would not allow projects to go ahead until the regulator thoroughly understood the proposed activity and had put rules in place to prevent any unacceptable impacts. If experts have to be brought in from other jurisdictions in order that unbiased decisions can be reached on whether projects are safe to proceed, so be it. But pretending it is sufficient that companies regulate themselves is just ridiculous.
And a government that cared would actually enforce the law against companies that contravene the rules.
Albertans need a government that understands ecological integrity is not a luxury we can take or leave – it’s an economic, as well as a moral, imperative. Alberta’s future can be bright, but only if we change political direction.
We could elect a government that takes environment seriously
We don’t have a provincial government that is serious about protecting Albertans from environmental harms. But we could. One day Albertans will have had enough of this abuse and, like long-suffering victims of domestic violence, will finally decide to leave the relationship. That liberating day cannot come too soon. Maybe it will on May 5 when Albertans next go to the polls.
This release was written by Janet Keeping, Leader, Green Party of Alberta