Surface Tension

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A story of rising tensions in East Central Alberta, as competing interests vie for scarce regional resources and struggle for local decision-making control
Key Themes: Carbon Rich; Many is Beautiful AND Global Scale Agriculture; Controlled Growth
Key Question: What is the role of government and community in local/regional planning and decision- making?


  • Coal is developed in East Central Alberta
  • Energy prices are moderate


  • East Central Alberta is integrated into the Alberta Oil and Gas economy
  • There is moderate growth and job creation


  • Regional hubs, such as Camrose, Tofield, Forestburg, Viking and Sedgewick, are growing, providing commercial, retail, health, and other government services.
  • Rural residential develops around regional hubs
  • The countryside empties out


  • Land reclamation and environmental protection is focused on meeting water needs


  • Land zoning is used to manage the coexistence of different agricultural models
  • Shared governance is used to manage competing interests
  • Government regulation seen as stifling economic creativity and freedom
  • Public sentiment is divided; there is no generally-accepted vision for future growth and development

Story (Scenario)

Surface Tension - 2033

It's five years since Sara Kruger opened her law practice in Camrose. Not that she attaches any great significance to this milestone. Why people move or why they stay, what they choose to do or not to do, is complicated business, as any lawyer knows, deserving perhaps of reflection as much as celebration. A glass of wine, after work with her husband, she decides, will suffice.

Sara was raised in Calgary, always considered herself a fish out of water, always a county girl at heart, a kindred spirit of rural folk. The kind of people who were solid and reasonable, in a low-key kind of way, more likely to solve disagreements, she was convinced, over the fence, or over the kitchen table. Her evidence for all of this, her confirmation growing up, was the month she spent every summer at her aunt Carol's house in Holden.

This was the vision she clung to, what she hoped was ahead for her. A vision, she freely admitted, that was complicated by her desire to study law. After graduation, her aunt Carol, who was never short of practical advice, and never hesitant about sharing it, offered this solution: Why not practise law in East Central Alberta? Who says you can't have it both ways?

So fresh out of law school, 2028 it was, Sara made her move, hoping to scratch out a living while she built up trust and established a track record. The first day she opened for business, two clients walked through her door. The second day, she signed up two more. It suddenly seemed to her that there were orphaned cases everywhere, just waiting for adoption. In short, a litigator's paradise.

Back in 2014, energy prices remained relatively high, at around $120 a barrel. Spurred on by steady world demand, Alberta continued to be a major player in the fossil fuel industry, providing a safe haven for investors in an unstable world. The province's oil sands continued to expand. Nervous about the political implications of climate change, Alberta became a world leader in investing in carbon mitigation strategies, with only marginal success.

East Central Alberta was fully integrated into Alberta's fossil fuel economy. A surface coal mine, occupying over 300 square kilometres just south of the Town of Tofield and the Village of Ryley, along with a gasification facility, supported oil sands production and new upgraders in the industrial heartland east of Edmonton. Improved extraction technologies were marginally extending the life of conventional oil and gas fields in Flagstaff County.

In 2020, despite intensified global warming concerns and the global expansion of alternative energy use, diminishing fossil fuel reserves worldwide kept prices high. Alberta saw no economic imperative to develop large-scale alternative energy resources. Modest carbon sequestration technologies came on stream, encouraging the full development of East Central Alberta's coal resources.

Consolidated corporate farms produced agricultural cash crops and biofuels for the export market. Growing concern for food quality and security, however, resulted in expanding markets for locally grown food. Electricity generated from the region's coal mines and gasification facilities fuelled local greenhouse operations.

Secure energy supplies, plus government economic incentives, helped diversify the region's economy, attracting small industries, including local food processing plants producing value-added agricultural products for the region, as well as for the Edmonton-Calgary corridor.

East Central Alberta experienced moderate economic growth and job creation. More young people moved into the region. Regional hubs, including Camrose, Tofield, Forestburg, Viking and Sedgewick, were growing, providing commercial, retail, health, and other government services.

It was on her first big case in 2029 that Sara met her future husband Jim, a local developer. She was acting against him, on behalf of the City of Camrose, in a zoning/land use/water allocation/breach of contract dispute. The quarrel was over a wedge-shaped parcel of land, approximating four square kilometres, on the outskirts of the City.

Jim was convinced he had a valid agreement to go ahead with his rural-residential development. His plans had been scrutinized, his due diligence done, his approvals and permits in tow. Or so he thought. The previous year, in 2028, the City of Camrose had expanded its jurisdictional boundaries, running smack up against the region's brand new Zoning and Water Allocation Board. The Board threatened to sue the City, and Jim, if his project was allowed to proceed. The City felt it had no option but to pass the threat on to Jim, and put his project on hold. The provincial ministries of Environment and Municipal Affairs got involved.

So Jim's plans, once approved, were revisited. Key interest groups re-engaged. Large-scale agricultural interests did not want the land taken out of the agricultural reserve, and did not want increased competition for water resources. Local agricultural interests eyed the land for greenhouse and market garden use. Environmentalists wanted it protected as wetlands.

One of the countless lawyers involved in the case confided in Sara that Jim's proposal was not the first one to dissolve, without a trace, into thin air over that particular wedge-shaped parcel of land. Nor would it be the last, he suspected. Among the legal community, it was affectionately known as East Central Alberta's Bermuda Triangle.

Sara recalls, at the conclusion of one raucous meeting, how Jim sighed and threw his hands up in frustration. She remembers noticing at the time what fine hands he had. In the end, it was Sara who brokered the deal. Jim was reimbursed for his expenses, and dropped his breach of contract lawsuit. The City and the Board agreed to explore more effective ways to regulate scarce resources, and to create better mechanisms and incentives to guide growth and development.

In 2026, East Central Alberta remained a relatively stable part of the fossil fuel economy, although there was some local concern about its reliance on non-renewable energy. Government, industry and retail services continued to expand in growing regional centres. Rural-residential developments spread out around these hubs, as well as greenhouse, market garden, and food processing operations. Further out in the countryside, small farms continued to be swallowed up.

Big Oil, large-scale Agriculture, small-scale industrial development, and expanding residential areas, combined with the increasing frequency of drought, created tension and competition for scarce land and water resources. Water shortages limited future residential and industrial growth, as well as the region's efforts to diversify.

By 2028, water and land use was strictly regulated. Water licences were prioritized with an eye to adding economic value to the region. Land reclamation was focused on meeting water needs, and wetlands were seen as a key element of mitigation strategies. Some, however, felt community concerns were being ignored. The environment was protected through tight government regulation, but competing interests nonetheless threatened wetlands and wildlife habitat.

By 2033, there was a growing sense that government over-regulation and a focus on the needs of global markets, was stifling economic creativity and local freedoms. Several failed attempts at shared governance resulted in no regional consensus on a focus for future growth and development. Communities and individuals within the region felt mostly ignored. There remained no common understanding of how shared governance could or should work.

Four days after she settled his case, Sara and Jim went on their first date. It raised a few eyebrows, they were certain, but didn't care. He thanked her for getting his business out from under the whole mess. She told him he had nice hands. She didn't tell him she was happy with the fate of his project.

Sara smiles now at her desk and recalls that it was three days later, on their second date, that she informed him she wasn't a big fan of suburban sprawl. To her way of thinking, it swallowed up too much land. Future residential development should be vertical, creating urban density. As a leading-edge developer, she told him, he should get with the program.

She shakes her head, amazed at her nerve, and recalls Jim's response. If we're handing out free advice, he told her, and if this hardcore litigation thing turns out not to be your cup of tea, why not focus on mediation services? From the available evidence, you sure know how to broker a deal.

Sara redirects her attention to her presentation to the new Regional Planning, Land Use, Water Allocation and Environmental Protection Board. Just what the world needs, Jim laughed when she told him, another board. But she's been asked to co-chair this one, this latest attempt at resting some local control, at coming up with, among reasonable people, a levelling of the playing field, a sensible way forward. Not so different, Sara recalls now, from what she envisioned as a little girl.

Detailed Assumptions


  • Coal is developed in East Central Alberta, mainly to support oil sands production and refinement
  • Electricity produced from mining coal is also used locally to fuel local industry
  • Energy prices are moderately high - there is less reliance globally on oil, as alternative renewable energy sources are developed, but not in Alberta
  • There is concern that Alberta may be left behind as it continues to rely on non-renewable energy
  • Conventional oil and gas reserves in East Central Alberta are depleted, and remaining deposits are not economically viable
  • But there are still no incentives to develop large scale renewable energy sources
  • Public investment in R&D into technologies to mitigate environmental impacts


  • The region is integrated into the Alberta oil/gas economy
  • Overall, there is moderate economic growth and job creation
  • Reliance on a variety of carbon-based sources: coal and bio-fuels
  • Large consolidated farms produce bio-fuels and cash crops for the export market
  • As concern over food security grows, electricity produced locally through the coal mine is used to fuel greenhouses that supply the region with locally grown produce
  • With secure energy supplies and government subsidies, industry comes to East Central Alberta, especially in the area of local, value-added agricultural products that rely on growth in the regional hubs and transportation networks that connect them to the Capital Region and to the Edmonton/Calgary Corridor.
  • The notion of diversification has not yet created enough momentum to sufficiently change the economic dynamics of the economics
  • Satisfying global markets mean corporate decisions trump local control
  • Industry is more environmentally friendly due to political regulation


  • Government and industry services expand in the growing regional hubs of Camrose, Tofield, Viking, Forestburg, and Sedgewick, which become destinations for the region
  • There is an influx of people into these regional centres; surrounded by rural-residential development
  • Market garden and greenhouse operations provide local produce to these regional centres
  • Out in the countryside, small farm operations are consolidated
  • The region's population grows modestly: it increases around regional service centres, but decreases elsewhere
  • Government and industry services expand in regional hubs to service the entire region
  • While the population is aging, more young people move to the region seeking employment

Water and the Environment:

  • Water use is regulated by the government
  • Land reclamation and environmental protection is focused on meeting water needs
  • Wetlands are seen as a key element of the mitigation strategy
  • There is tension over water allocation and severe water shortages limiting growth
  • Large-scale agricultural operations and growing regional hubs create competing demands for limited water supply
  • Water licenses are issued based on value added to the economy, and secondarily on their impacts on community and environment
  • Environment is protected through government regulation, but competing interests for land use threatens wildlife habitat
  • Technology is used to mitigate environmental problems (carbon capture, etc.)


  • Concern that global markets and government regulation is limiting local control
  • Land zoning is used to manage the co-existence of different agricultural models and industrial uses
  • Government regulation seen as stifling economic creativity and freedom
  • Shared governance is attempted to manage competing interests, and to develop shared understanding of the needs of different sectors, but the local community is divided
  • There is tension between the competing interests and needs of communities and the environment with those of government and global markets
  • Public sentiment is divided; there is no generally-accepted vision for future growth and development

Chart of Assumptions

Planning Factor: Energy Future (Download chart)
Theme: Energy Future

Planning Factor: Economic Sustainability (Download chart)
Theme: Agriculture - Combination of Many is Beautiful and Global Scale

Planning Factor: Nature of Community (Download chart)
Theme: Community and our Environment - Controlled Growth

Planning Factor: Water Quality and Quantity (Download chart)
Theme: Community and our Environment -
Controlled Growth

Planning Factor: Environmental Sustainability (Download chart)
Community and our Environment - Controlled Growth

Planning Factor: Governance (Download chart)
Community and our Environment - Controlled Growth