When it comes to Alberta’s threatened woodland caribou, conservation offsets hold great potential as part of solution. A few weeks ago, I described them as an opportunity to kick-start much needed habitat restoration within caribou ranges if oil and gas development continues to occur on this fractured landscape.
If mandatory conservation offsets become reality in Alberta, it could simply become a regulated requirement left for companies to fulfill any legal obligations as a condition for an approval that would result in disturbance within caribou ranges. Accordingly, companies would ensure that additional restoration happens on the landscape (or conserve currently undisturbed land that would have otherwise been disturbed), or buy offsets from other parties that have generated a surplus by completing restoration projects.
This possibility is fine, as long as there are assurances that we can meet our obligations under the federal Recovery Strategy for Woodland Caribou. What’s imperative is that the tool we use actually leads to a net positive gain in caribou habitat, so that this iconic animal will have a fighting chance to survive over the next few decades. Use of offsets will need to be combined with decisions to permanently protect some areas of caribou habitat as Alberta has proposed in three northern ranges.
If conservation offsets become mandatory in Alberta, there are tools that could coordinate offsets among industry. Such coordination could lead to more efficient environmental outcomes — including habitat creation — and make compliance with offset requirements cheaper.
Hence, the concept of the “Conservation Offset Exchange.” The basic idea behind an exchange is an administrative body that operates a “smart market” that moves beyond simple bilateral trading. By using a smart market, an exchange can account for completed restoration offsets and match companies that need to acquire offsets to meet any obligations they have. It coordinates these buyers and sellers, using science-based metrics to measure the quality and consistency of offsets, and can prioritize key areas that have more ecological value to restore or conserve (such as land adjacent to caribou habitat).
A central administrative body can alleviate much of the burden put on companies to figure out the answers to such questions as: Where is the best place to have this offset? What future activity may impact the offset we are creating? It can also cut through some of the equivalency issues that can be complex to navigate, such as matching the right offsets with those that have specific requirements. It uses common metrics, indicators, and protocols to facilitate this.
This kind of exchange has been tested in a few different places. For instance, the Chicago Climate Exchange brought together companies that voluntarily signed binding agreements to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Over eight years, offsets generated through this exchange were traded anonymously, using standardized systems and protocols. Additionally, the Native Vegetation Exchange was piloted in Australia, testing complex market protocols through a trading platform. If a conservation offset exchange is implemented in Alberta, we have a few examples to learn from and build on.
This conversation in Alberta is being championed by InnoTech Alberta, which the Pembina Institute has worked with over the past year to test the appetite for such a market. As the deadline for caribou range plans draws nearer, conservation offsets look more and more like a viable solution to stimulate the vast quantities of restoration that we need. An exchange could be a complementary way to maximize the ecological benefits we could see from conservation offsets, and protect Alberta’s caribou for future generations.