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Abstract

The development of the oil sands in Alberta has become a focal point in Canada’s response to global climate change. Before an oil sands project can proceed, it must first undergo environmental assessment. This process frequently engages both provincial and federal environmental assessment legislation, which are implemented by administrative tribunals. The purpose of the paper is two-fold: firstly, to determine whether environmental assessment legislation provides regulators with the tools to assess the impact of an oil sands project's greenhouse gas emissions on the environment, and secondly, to examine how tribunals have been enforcing those standards during assessments. This paper finds that federal and provincial statutes provide panels with the scope to consider GHG emissions at the assessment stage; however, the relevant legislation places no demands on tribunals to specifically address the issue. The permissive language affords tribunals with latitude in downplaying the environmental effects of climate change. As such, climate change issues rarely surface in environmental assessments of oil sands projects, and when they do, the effects of climate change do not hinder regulatory approval. After reviewing policy responses, the paper concludes that any change in environmental assessment is only possible when either tribunals or governments prioritize the effects of climate change in environmental assessment.


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