Sometimes it seems it’s all or nothing for Alberta’s oil sands regulation. Environmental oversight is often seen by critics as too weak, or unnecessarily stringent by advocates. While oil sands opponents insist the government isn’t doing enough to mitigate its impacts, development supporters say regulation is not only adequate and effective, it is erring towards over-regulation, unnecessarily constraining the development of a vital and valuable resource for Alberta and Canada.
While the animal life may differ, Canada, Alaska and Australia share many similarities when it comes to resource regulation. Photo credit: iStockphoto
To help put the question in perspective, we thought it might be interesting to check out how other regions deal with regulating similar-sized resources. We came across a recent study from the Colorado-based business information company IHS CERA Inc. that provided some insights.
In the study, the IHS CERA energy research division, founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Daniel Yergin, compared Alberta’s regulatory framework with equivalent regulations for large-scale mining and oil operations in Australia and Alaska. It found strong similarities in governance, investment and resource development approaches in all three areas. IHS CERA said all three are highly developed economically with transparent and inclusive regulatory systems and allow for free-market investment into their projects (as opposed to, say, Mexico, where the state-owned oil company is the sole producer of crude).
In fact, IHS CERA discovered more similarities than differences between oversight of Alberta’s oil sands, Alaska’s oil production and lead, zinc and coal mining and South Australia’s iron ore, coal, and copper mines. Some examples:
- Alberta, South Australia and Alaska all apply similar rules when it comes to approving, operating and eventually completing energy and mining projects and require similar data to document these processes.
- Alberta is also comparable, if not superior, to the other jurisdictions on the availability of information to regulators, such as environmental impact studies, public comments and operators’ responses.
- Some critics argue that, since no oil sands project has been denied, regulators are merely rubber-stamping developers’ plans. IHS found that few projects are turned down in the other jurisdictions as well, and the reason is not soft regulation, but that operators make sure of their facts before submitting plans. Projects that won’t meet the standards are either not submitted or are withdrawn before a decision is made.
IHS CERA also noted differences between the jurisdictions. In Alberta, lands for oil sands developments are leased to industry before environmental impacts are studied or the public is consulted. In Alaska, the order is reversed: impact assessments and stakeholder consultations occur before the lands are made available to the developer.
We know that one peer study is hardly proof that Alberta's oil sands regulation is as good as it could be. The door always remains open for improvement. Developers and the government agree on that. The good news is that enhancements are well underway.
The new oil sands monitoring system, announced earlier this month, has the potential to drive regulatory improvements and increase transparency. And the recent oil sands information portal (referenced in a previous OSQAR) has also helped bolster transparency and information access when it comes to environmental impacts.
So while the answer to the question of whether oil sands regulation is too weak or too strong will likely continue to depend on who you ask, industry remains committed to minimizing environmental impacts of its operations and welcome any changes that help meet this objective.
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