Alberta Caribou Plan Allows Fossil Drilling Right Away, Delays Habitat Protections Five Years
The federal and Alberta governments have signed on to a protection plan for the province’s caribou that gives them five years to develop and implement range plans for the endangered herds, but allows fossil drilling in some of their habitats to start up right away.
“The plan envisions self-sustaining herds on healthy habitat sometime between 50 and 100 years from now,” The Canadian Press reports, but contains little or no immediate relief for the caribou or the “remaining patches of undisturbed old-growth boreal forest” they depend on.
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While federal guidelines for healthy caribou habitat suggest no more than 35% of a territory should be disturbed by industrial or other activity, “the ranges of five of Alberta’s most threatened herds are between 70 and 80% disturbed,” CP writes.
“I’m very concerned that development is in the fast lane, caribou conservation is slow,” said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
While the agreement makes conservation decisions more visible and opens a pathway for federal funding, “it will do little to change the immediate facts on the ground for caribou,” the news agency adds, citing University of Calgary environmental litigation specialist Shaun Fluker.
“There’s nothing new in the details of restoration and protection,” Fluker told CP. “It’s the same techniques they’re currently doing.”
While the protection deal “promises to protect and restore habitat, it also contains loopholes that allow Alberta to develop more of it,” the news agency adds. “Oil and gas drilling as well as mineral exploration may now resume on caribou ranges if it’s ‘in alignment with woodland caribou conservation and recovery objectives’,” according to the plan.
“The agreement lacks interim habitat protection while range plan development is proposed to occur,” Campbell said, “making it likely that critical habitat disturbance and caribou extirpation risk will continue to increase in the short-term.”
She added that the agreement covers lands where Alberta had previously stopped selling oil and gas leases, and also fails to rule out an increase in timber harvesting, even though that was covered in an earlier draft.
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers CEO Tim McMillan was happy with the deal. “Indigenous communities, local governments, and industry can continue to forge a path forward that will help save Alberta’s caribou populations and ensure a strong economic future for all Canadians with sustainable oil and natural gas development,” he said.
Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the agreement includes “significant” federal funding and balances conservation and environmental concerns, while his provincial counterpart, Jason Nixon, said it prevents unilateral federal action.
“This agreement avoids the disasterous (sic) effects that would be brought on by an Environmental Protection Order and underlines the importance of maintaining the province’s lead role in the development of a made-in-Alberta solution that supports caribou recovery,” Nixon said in a written (but possibly not spell-checked) statement.