Failed Experiments: An Empirical Assessment of Adaptive Management in Alberta's Energy Resources Sector
By Martin Olszynski, 2017
100 pp. Occasional Paper #55
Much has been written about adaptive management in the past decade. Broadly understood as an iterative approach to environmental problems wherein management actions are designed as experiments with a view towards learning and improvement, adaptive management’s implementation in Canada, as elsewhere, has been described predominantly as lacking in rigour – what leading U.S. scholars have termed ‘a/m-lite’.
This paper contributes to this scholarship by providing an assessment of its implementation and effectiveness in Canada’s energy resources sector and specifically within the province of Alberta, home to Canada’s controversial oil sands. Using freedom of information processes, publicly available documents, and communication with the relevant regulator, the author collected the environmental impact statements, statutory approvals and required follow-up reports for thirteen energy projects (coalmines, oil sands mines, and in situ oil sands) wherein the proponent proposed adaptive management for at least one environmental issue or problem. Content analysis of these documents was conducted to determine the conception, implementation, and effectiveness of adaptive management with respect to each project throughout the regulatory cycle. The results confirm long-standing concerns about the implementation of adaptive management: varying conceptions, including as a routine strategy that guarantees positive environmental outcomes; insufficient attention being paid to experimental design; and no or incomplete implementation. Bearing in mind the ubiquity of adaptive management in energy and natural resources development, the paper concludes with recommendations for law and policy reform. The focus is on Alberta and Canada but the discussion should be relevant to other jurisdictions where adaptive management is prominent, such as the United States and Australia.
This paper was published in the UBC Law Review, Volume 50, Issue 3 (August 2017).