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CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Alberta released an updated land-use plan for its oil sands region on Monday that the energy sector lauded for its balance between development and conservation, but environmentalists criticized for being too industry-friendly.
The latest draft sought to revise a contentious plan for the Lower Athabasca region that the government of the western Canadian province first released in April, aimed at delineating which areas can be developed and which should be set aside.
In that version, some companies faced the possibility of losing portions of oil sands leases to parkland.
"There have been some adjustments made relative to conservation areas and the tenure that's allowed on the landscape, both subsurface tenure and surface tenure," Mel Knight, Alberta's sustainable resource development minister, said.
The document makes note of the economic importance of the oil sands, the third-largest crude source in the world, as well as how a land-use policy will not supersede private property rights or aboriginal treaty rights.
Knight's department developed the policy to deal with the cumulative effects of often-frenzied oil sands development on the environment and local populations, including native communities.
Environmental groups have been highly critical of the pace of oil sands development and its impact on land, water and local communities.
The government said adjustments to boundaries included shifting two townships of land, which each total about 6 square miles (15.5 square km), in an area south of the oil sands hub of Fort McMurray called Birch River, where Sunshine Oilsands Ltd is planning a project.
The adjustments mean less of Sunshine's lease will be affected by the land-use plan.
"I think there has been a great deal of discussion with the companies that hold leases in the area about what the initial boundaries were ... and we encouraged them to talk to the companies to make sure they understand the implications," said David Pryce, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the industry's main lobby group.
"By and large, though, the plan itself was very much the way they had proposed it previously, and from a broad sense we're still very supportive of the notion of the plan because it gives us the policy certainty we were looking for," Pryce said.
Green groups were not enthusiastic. The updated land-use plan failed to address immediate threats to the region's water supplies and biodiversity, said Jennifer Grant, oil sands program director at the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank.
"The draft is presented as a weaker document versus a stronger document and that will continue to delay decisions around disturbance limits - limits on any amount of oil sands development that can occur at one time," Grant said.
It has also delayed policies to halt the spread of toxic tailings ponds and tougher restrictions on use of water from the Athabasca River, she said.
"Industry concessions and loopholes are, in part, responsible for weakening the document further," Grant said.
Minister Knight said the land-use plan will be debated by the Conservative government's cabinet in coming weeks. He said he is confident that it will survive an upcoming change in Alberta's leadership. Premier Ed Stelmach is scheduled to step down next month.
Editing by Rob Wilson