CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The Alberta government said on Tuesday it is mulling setting aside close to 2 million hectares (7,700 square miles) of conservation lands near the Canadian province's prolific oil sands region.
Mel Knight, the province's sustainable resources development minister, introduced a draft land-use plan for the lower reaches the Athabasca River, an area that includes most of Alberta's oil sands projects.
"We're going to ... look at a number of new parks here," Knight said.
The province is under pressure from environmental groups concerned about the impact of oil sands development on wildlife, water quality and regional communities.
To quell the criticism, the government plans to improve the monitoring of water quality downstream from the oil sands and cut back on the toxic tailings ponds that have been deadly for waterfowl that land on them.
The new plan will increase conservation set-asides, though many of those areas will remain open to some energy development. It may also set new rules for reclaiming oil sands mining sites.
Still, environmental groups are calling for the province to consult independent scientists before finalizing the land-use plan.
"We remain concerned that this current draft still v prioritizes industry interests over science-based environmental protection," said Jennifer Grant, director of the oil sands program at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank.
The Alberta government expects to hold public hearings over the next two months before finalizing the details of the plan.
Reporting by Scott Haggett; editing by Rob Wilson