The cottage owners around Marie Lake are no doubt delighted by Premier Ed Stelmach’s announcement that the government will not allow seismic testing to proceed on the lake. This is, indeed, a paradigm shift from the Alberta government’s business-as-usual approach to energy development which has been based on the premise that any area of the province may be available for oil and gas development.
For this reason, Marie Lake is a perfect example of larger problems in Alberta; problems that centre on heightening land-use conflicts, and problems with the lack of public input into decisions that involve public land and publicly owned resources.
It may be no surprise that as Alberta’s economy and population continue to grow, there is increased potential for clashes over land use. The potential for conflict is everywhere when uses such as farming, residential development, recreational activities, oil and gas development and other industries all compete for a finite land base. Planning is the key to managing land-use conflicts in a proactive fashion and this essential piece is missing in Alberta.
The former leader of this province stated with alarming candor that the province had “no plan” for dealing with growth arising from the energy sector; and the current government has not yet rolled out a comprehensive plan to deal with these issues either. The province is in the process of developing a land-use framework, which Minister Morton’s department may release this fall. It remains to be seen if this land-use framework will deal with thorny issues such as the selling of oil and gas leases beneath certain parts of this province.
Before Marie Lake came into the spotlight, many Albertans may have been surprised to learn that there is no process for public input before oil and gas leases are sold to companies in order to develop the resource. Oil and gas leases are sold to the highest bidder through a closed competitive auction process. Even though 81 percent of all the oil and gas in Alberta is owned by the provincial Crown, on behalf of all Albertans, Albertans do not have a voice when it comes to the leasing of these rights. In fact, oil and gas leases can and have been sold under lakes, provincial parks and other ecologically sensitive areas of the province, such as the Eastern Slopes, without any public input into whether this is best for all Albertans. It seems ironic that a publicly owned resource allows for no public input into whether it should be developed at all.
Marie Lake has also highlighted the lack of public input into activities that occur on public lands. Although Albertans, as private landowners, have a right to say “no” to seismic testing proposed for their lands, the same is not true for public lands. For public lands, the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development makes this decision without any input from the public or any means to appeal the Minister’s decision. This was the conundrum faced by Marie Lake cottage owners and why they chose to bring their issues to the media. They had no other option because, as members of the public, they had no say on seismic testing proposed for public lands adjacent to their properties.
Of course, there may be an opportunity for public input later on in the process once an oil and gas project reaches the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (EUB) for approval, but even this is not a guarantee that citizens will be heard. When development occurs on public lands, there may be no one living close enough to the project to be considered “directly and adversely affected” and trigger an EUB hearing. Even if a hearing is triggered, the EUB has been criticized for approving oil and gas projects provided the project meets technical standards. The EUB has indicated that its role is to provide for the “economic, orderly and efficient development” of the resource, not to discuss whether certain areas of the province should be off limits to oil and gas development.
It is clear that the problems highlighted by Marie Lake are not easily fixed. What is needed is a province-wide planning mechanism that incorporates the oil and gas leasing process and a process for meaningful public participation in land-use decisions. It will be interesting to see if Marie Lake is a one-off decision to silence cottage owners, or whether this government is really ready to take a serious look at changing the way it approaches energy development in the province.
Jodie Hierlmeier is a lawyer with the Environmental Law Centre, a charitable organization which provides the public with a source of information on environmental law and policy.
* The original op-ed document is shown here; Published versions may vary.