June 16, 2016

Professor receives research grant from Alberta Law Foundation

Professor Nickie Nikolaou has received a research grant from Alberta Law Foundation.

Professor Nickie Nikolaou has received funding from the Alberta Law Foundation to undertake research on the current legislative and regulatory framework for oil sands development in Alberta. She is being assisted by summer research assistant, Alex Grigg, who will enter his third year of law school at the University of Calgary this Fall. The research will update a comprehensive paper published in 2007 by the Canadian Institute of Resources Law.

Research summary: A Ten Year Update on the Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Oil Sands Development in Alberta

Canada’s energy future continues to lie in the Alberta oil sands that represent more than 95% of Canada’s remaining proven oil reserves.[1] Notwithstanding low world oil prices, substantial production continues. Some reports forecast that production of oil from the Alberta oil sands will increase 43% over the next 16 years.[2] With this development undoubtedly comes a series of legal and regulatory challenges that require serious study and consideration.

In 2007, thanks to generous funding from the Alberta Law Foundation, I was able to complete a detailed review and analysis of the (then) legislative and regulatory framework for oil sands development in Alberta was undertaken.[3] As the only paper of its kind, the publication has been used extensively by various stakeholders to understand, comment upon, and navigate through the oil sands decision-making processes in the province.[4] Along with a detailed review of the legislative and regulatory framework in 2007, the publication also identified gaps and made recommendations for regulatory reform. In particular, the research uncovered significant deficiencies in the 2007 oil sands legal and regulatory framework in regard to:

(i)     a lack of planning, coordination and integration of decision-making;

(ii)     the presence of excessive complexities and uncertainties; and

(iii)     a lack of transparency and accessibility, including challenges in regard to public participation.   

But the legal and regulatory landscape for oil sands development in Alberta has changed dramatically since 2007. During the last 9 years, numerous changes to the way oil sands development occurs in the province have been made. Some of those changes, like the introduction and implementation of regional land use plans in the province, have generally been welcomed as much-needed positive developments. Others, however, like the sweeping changes made to applicable federal legislation, have been strongly criticized. Still others are changes for which the jury is still out and critical assessment must occur. One major development in this regard is the establishment, in 2013, of a new single energy regulator for the province, the Alberta Energy Regulator. While heralded as a move to streamline processes and make the law more transparent and accountable, there is a need for serious review and analysis to assess whether this has in fact occurred.

Given the changes since 2007, there is a critical need to update the work that was done in the 2007 Oil Sands Review. As it was for that review, the overriding question of research and analysis for this project will be whether the current legal and regulatory framework for oil sands development in Alberta is a fair, transparent, accountable, effective and sustainable framework. This project will outline the changes that have occurred, identify gaps and problem areas, and make recommendations for reform where needed.

The project will follow the format developed in the 2007 Oil Sands Review by reviewing and analyzing the current regulatory framework through the 4 key stages in the development process: the oil sands policy-making and land-use planning stage; the disposition of the rights to develop oil sands stage; the disposition of rights to access the surface of public land (where most if not all oil sands development occurs); and the oil sands project review and approval stage. This project will: (i) describe the current features of each stage in the development process; (ii) identify what has changed with respect to each stage in the process since 2007; (iii) critically evaluate and assess those changes; (iv) identify key unresolved (or new) issues and problem areas at each stage; and (v) make recommendations for reform. The results of this research will provide a clear and comprehensive analysis of what the current legal and regulatory regime for oil sands development looks like, where the difficult issues and challenges remain, and where change should occur in the future.


[1] See, for example, Natural Resources Canada, “About Crude Oil and Petroleum Products”.

[2] Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canada’s Oil Sands, online at: http://www.canadasoilsands.ca/en/.

[3] Nickie Vlavianos, The Legislative and Regulatory Framework for Oil Sands Development in Alberta: A Detailed Review and Analysis, CIRL Occasional Paper #21, 75 pp (Calgary: Canadian Institute for Resources Law, 2007) (2007 Oil Sands Review).

[4] While commentators and scholars have certainly written on various aspects of the oil sands legal and regulatory framework, to my knowledge, there is no other work that has provided the in-depth and comprehensive treatment that is provided in my 2007 Oil Sands Review.