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New conservation tool proposed in Alberta's oil sands

Industry leaders, Aboriginal communities and environmental groups agree that biodiversity offsets are vital to manage environmental impacts in Alberta's Boreal Forest

June 10, 2008 - Edmonton

In an effort to prevent irreversible decline of species and biodiversity in Alberta’s Boreal Forest, industry can take important steps to offset their environmental impacts by setting aside or restoring areas of equal or greater value to the lands disturbed. So says a report, Catching Up: Conservation and Biodiversity Offsets in Alberta’s Boreal Forest, released today.

The report, commissioned by the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI) and authored by the Pembina Institute and Alberta Research Council, brings together experiences from the application of offset policies in other jurisdictions with perspectives from industry, First Nations, government, academics and environmental groups in Alberta. It concludes that biodiversity offsets should be considered to address the growing impacts on biodiversity from resource development in the Boreal, including in Alberta’s oil sands region.

Biodiversity offsets, also called conservation offsets, allow resource companies to compensate for the unavoidable impacts to biodiversity from their development projects by conserving lands of equal or greater biological value, with the objective of having no net loss in biodiversity.

The main findings of this study are:

  • Biodiversity offsets could result in tangible conservation results to mitigate development impacts;
  • A successful offset strategy relies on effective land-use planning to establish conservation objectives, cumulative effects targets and thresholds, and is embedded in a range of other policies and actions to support conservation goals;
  • Representatives from the oil and gas industry said that their companies were either already implementing or considering investing in biodiversity offsets;
  • Several key issues need to be resolved in creating an offset program: defining offset program objectives, determining future availability and cost of offsets, and identifying options for distributing risks of the environmental liabilities created by offsets. These issues should be explored through a well designed pilot study.

“Experience in private land conservation in Alberta and from around the world demonstrates that biodiversity offsets can be a cost-effective and efficient method to secure important conservation outcomes,” said Larry Innes, executive director of CBI. “Our report suggests that there is also an important opportunity to consider biodiversity offsets on pubic lands. “

“Managing development to maintain biodiversity is a significant challenge in Alberta’s Boreal Forest because of the combined and growing effects of energy and forest sector development,” said Simon Dyer, oil sands program director at the Pembina Institute and a lead author of the report. “There is also a real need for conservation to ‘catch up’ to the pace of development. Within Alberta’s Boreal Forest, the amount of land now licensed for development has doubled to 2.8 million hectares over the past five years, and unless key lands are soon secured for conservation, there will be real consequences for wildlife and traditional uses. Conserving forests to offset impacts associated with development projects is a tool industry can use to compensate for their impacts.”

The Catching Up report was supported by Canadian-based energy company Nexen Inc., who are actively looking for ways to reduce the industrial footprint from their oil sands operations.

“Real opportunities exist now to pilot biodiversity offset projects in Alberta,” said Garry Mann, general manager of health, safety and environment at Nexen. “Industry is ready to invest in offsets, and we need government to support these initiatives by establishing clear land use policies and regulations that will enable this tool to be broadly applied.”

Nexen, Pembina, and CBI are part of a working group advancing two pilot biodiversity offset projects in northeastern Alberta that seek to protect large areas of Alberta’s Boreal Forest from industrial activity in order to offset some of the biological impacts of development within the region. Other members of the working group include Suncor Energy, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc., the Little Red River and Tall Cree First Nations, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada Alberta Region.

The working group’s efforts are timely. In May, the Government of Alberta announced a draft Land-use Framework that identifies biodiversity offsets as a “key strategy” to encourage stewardship and conservation.

“The draft Land-use Framework recognizes that biodiversity offsets are a valuable tool, but has focused on private land stewardship,” stated Innes. “We hope the Government of Alberta will take the necessary steps to make biodiversity offsets a viable tool for achieving similar land stewardship on public lands.”

The full report is available at: (PDF-3MB).

About the Canadian Boreal Initiative
The Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI) works with First Nations, governments, conservation organizations, industry leaders and others to link science, policy and conservation solutions across Canada’s Boreal Forest. CBI works to advance the Boreal Forest Conservation Framework as a balanced vision for conservation and sustainable development.

About the Pembina Institute
The Pembina Institute creates sustainable energy solutions through research, education, consulting and advocacy. It promotes environmental, social and economic sustainability in the public interest by developing practical solutions for communities, individuals, governments and businesses. The Pembina Institute provides policy research leadership and education on climate change, energy issues, green economics, energy efficiency and conservation, renewable energy and environmental governance. More information about the Pembina Institute is available at or by contacting



Larry Innes, Executive Director, Canadian Boreal Initiative

Simon Dyer, Oil Sands Program Director, The Pembina Institute, and lead author of the report

Marian Weber, Investigator, Alberta Research Council, and co-author of the report

Garry Mann, General Manager, Health, Safety & Environment, Corporate HSE & SR, Nexen Inc.

Shawn Wasel, Director, Environmental Sciences, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc.

Jim Webb, Senior Policy Advisor, Little Red River/Tall Cree First Nations

For further information please contact:

Marie-Hélène Bachand, Canadian Boreal Initiative/Edelman, 514.844.6665 x240