Largest boreal forest reserve in the world established next to Canada’s oil sands

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Everyone knows the bad numbers about Canada’s oil sands; they’ve heard all the horror stories and “carbon bomb” analogies whether they are all true or not. We know the resource is more energy intensive, we know that there are several hundred square kilometres of tailings ponds that are not duck-friendly. We’ve heard all about the environmental devastation caused by oil sands development, and heard how these petroleum deposits make a mockery of Indigenous rights, somehow. I haven’t figured that last one out yet.

When we hear about the global impact of oil sands development, and we have heard a lot about that topic, the obvious image that pops to mind is that the region must be a moonscape (as several Hollywood actors have called it) of total destruction. What we lose sight of though is the scale of Canada’s wilderness, and the actual – as opposed to imagined – footprint. This past week saw a wonderful event that helps us give context to the sheer size of the region.

The Alberta government recently announced the creation of a boreal forest reserve that is the size of one and a half Switzerlands. The area is immediately adjacent to the oil sands development region, but will be off limits for development.

One excellent aspect of the reserve is it was accomplished with not just Indigenous support and planning, but also with one of the largest oil sands mining companies (Suncor).

One terrible aspect of this reserve is that the most aggressive environmental groups, ones that have singled out oil sands development for scrutiny like no other production field in the world, refused to even acknowledge the reserve. Greenpeace, Stand.Earth, Environmental Defence…all vocal opponents of oil sands development had not a single thing to say about it. One group did however. The National Resources Defense Council had this to say: “The Government of Alberta’s decision to protect more than 1.3 million hectares of land in Northeast Alberta in partnership with The Government of Canada, the Tallcree First Nation, Syncrude and the Nature Conservancy of Canada shows that Indigenous, Provincial and Federal actors, as well as NGOs and industry, can successfully collaborate to protect large ecologically sensitive areas in Canada’s boreal forest. We are encouraged by the proposal of an Indigenous Guardian Program into the stewardship of the parks.”

The NRDC statement was a welcome bit of maturity in the debate of the one-good-turn-deserves-another kind. Reducing Canada’s and the world’s emissions is going to take a lot of collaboration, positive energy, and sheer effort. But that is the cost of cleaning the environment while maintaining our standard of living.

Let’s hope the examples of Suncor (for helping secure the land), the Indigenous peoples of the region (for working with industry to find solutions), and the NRDC (for openly acknowledging a positive development) all spill over to their respective peer groups. It is wonderful to see this progress which represents a significant step forward.

 

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