Volume 43 Issue 1, March 2017, pp. 61-76

This article identifies notable trends in environmental policy surrounding oil and gas development in Canada's leading producing provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan) in the period from 2009 to 2014: environmental policy streamlining in particular via the consolidation of environmental policymaking in development-oriented agencies, the continuation and raising of barriers to public involvement in decisions on oil and gas activity, and the avoidance of cumulative impact assessment. These trends signal policy convergence facilitating oil and gas development during a period of accelerating extraction and weakening federal environmental policy. More broadly, this confirms a pattern of conventional politics in energy-dependent subnational governments.

Dans cet article, les auteurs définissent trois tendances importantes que l'on a observées, de 2009 à 2014, dans les politiques environnementales liées à l'exploitation pétrolière et gazière dans les provinces canadiennes qui sont les plus grandes productrices (Alberta, Colombie-Britannique, Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador et Saskatchewan). Ces tendances sont : la rationalisation des politiques environnementales surtout par le recours à des organismes axés sur le développement ; la mise en place continuelle d'obstacles à la participation du public dans la prise de décisions liées aux activités pétrolières et gazières ; et l'absence d'évaluation des impacts cumulatifs. Ces tendances indiquent que l'objectif des politiques environnementales a été de faciliter l'exploitation pétrolière et gazière au cours d'une période où cette exploitation s'est accélérée et où les politiques environnementales fédérales se sont affaiblies. Plus largement, cela confirme l'existence du modèle de politique classique des États infranationaux dont l'économie est très liée à l'énergie.

Canada is an internationally recognized major producer of oil and gas with further fossil fuel development anticipated in all currently producing provinces, as well as in new areas, such as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the ultra-deep eastern offshore, and the Arctic. As oil and gas activity intensifies, so too do its environmental risks and impacts, which in turn signal a need for stronger environmental policy. Yet deepening economic dependence on oil and gas development is associated with a weakening of environmental policy and its implementation. In analyses of US states, governments strongly dependent on energy extraction frequently manifest twin tendencies toward diminished ecological protection: They attempt to preserve and protect economic stability by advancing status quo energy extraction while being actively pressured by the fossil fuel industry to foster continued and expanded production (Davis 2012; see also Cook 2014). This dynamic of government dependence and industry pressure results in entrenching “subgovernments” in which energy industry players, elected officials, and government departments prioritize mutually beneficial oil and gas development (Davis 2012, 178), as well as particular approaches to environmental policy. Accordingly, Rabe and Borick (2013) describe a “race to the bottom” in environmental regulation in extraction-based US states in which

entire state policy processes would be established that largely insulated established and emerging industries from environmental challenges, with states reluctant to take any unilateral environmental policy steps that might threaten their economic well-being by a shift of investment toward friendly jurisdictions. (322)

In a resource-extractive government, Rabe and Borick (2013) observe the predominance of “conventional” politics in which governments are “far more deferential to industry preference” and “downplay environmental protection” to prioritize “short-term economic development opportunities” (321–322, 329).

Given these observations and the rapid and projected expansion of oil and gas activities in Canada, there is an obvious need for an assessment of the state of environmental policy surrounding Canada's oil and gas industry. In response, and recognizing the decentralized nature of environmental policy, we conducted a five-year (2009–2014) cross-provincial research project to assess environmental policy trends in the four leading oil- and gas-producing Canadian provinces: Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Saskatchewan. The project aimed to understand the regulatory processes around oil and gas in each province and locate key changes therein, summarize major environmental impacts and risks documented in the scientific research, identify primary environmental policy challenges, and understand community responses to expanding development. Although we did not foresee this, our research ultimately took place during a particularly dynamic phase in the history of the Canadian oil and gas sector. The study began just after the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing crash in North American natural gas prices, encompassing a historic rise in global oil prices that saw unprecedented oil and gas production in all but the Newfoundland and Labrador case, and continued until the beginning of another steep oil price decline (since 2014). Although North American natural gas prices had started to recover from their 2008 drop during this research, the past two years have seen record lows associated in part with milder winters.

Our research used fieldwork in the four provinces, reviews of relevant academic and policy literature as well as media analysis, and, most important, interviews with more than 120 key participants in debates concerning environmental regulation of the oil and gas industry. We conducted extensive semistructured interviews oriented around our focus questions with policy-makers in the relevant departments in each province. We also interviewed community organization representatives and other researchers (e.g., representatives of non-governmental policy research institutes) identified as key actors in environmental regulation and took part in government-sponsored or community meetings on these issues. In addition, our project incorporated a workshop with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and researchers from the four provinces with whom we discussed national trends and received additional feedback on our findings. Given these methods, in particular the interviews with representatives of community organizations and local researchers and field-based observations, we were able to analyze central environmental policy issues in each province from the ground up.

Although each of these provinces is distinctive in the resources and technological forms dominating its oil and gas sector, the particular governance challenges and environmental impacts they face, and public response to development and regulation, our focus in this article is to highlight regulatory patterns shared across these cases. Here we take the pulse of provincial regulatory responses to the environmental risks of Canada's oil and gas sector and establish how Canada's environmental regulatory regime around this sector is highly compromised not only at the federal level but also across the major producing provinces in strikingly similar ways. Notable commonalities identified across these provinces include (a) the streamlining of environmental policy, particularly through consolidation of authority for environmental policy-making in development-oriented agencies and budget reductions at a time of increasing oil and gas activity; (b) continued and mounting impediments to public involvement in decision making on oil and gas activity; and (c) policy inaction on cumulative impacts. We take this as evidence of environmental policy convergence across Canada's major oil- and gas-producing provinces. Bennett's (1991) notion of policy convergence is helpful here, which he describes as the tendency of otherwise differing advanced industrial states “facing similar problems … to solve them in similar ways” (218).

In what follows, we first outline the federal policy context around oil and gas development, explain our focus on the provinces given the decentralized nature of Canadian environmental policy, and then provide a basic overview of development issues in the four cases. Next, we provide our analysis of policy convergence in these cases. Rather than offering a concentrated account of this convergence on a province-by-province basis, we identify common trends that are arguably the key environmental policy challenges in current—and future—fossil fuel–producing jurisdictions. The identification of these trends may serve as a road map to redress the weakened environmental policy context around oil and gas in Canadian provinces. We offer some helpful starting places for understanding the origins of this environmental policy convergence and argue that these fossil fuel provinces demonstrate policy alignment in prioritizing “the overriding imperative of economic development” (Rabe 1999, 290). This prioritization, we suggest, is associated with an intensified form of neoliberal environmental governance, as encapsulated by Heynen et al. (2007) and echoed in the findings of Huque and Watton (2010).

Canada is a globally significant oil and gas producer. It is the world's fifth largest oil producer, primarily because of Alberta's unconventional oil production, with substantial anticipated production based on the country's extensive oil reserves which are surpassed only by Venezuela and Saudi Arabia (International Energy Agency 2009; US Energy Information Administration 2015b). Canada is also the world's fifth largest producer and fourth largest exporter of dry natural gas (2014 data; US EIA 2015a). Unsurprisingly, the national economic impact of this sector is substantial. In 2013, oil and gas accounted for more than 25 percent of total national exports, far surpassing the mining, forestry, and automotive sectors (Lusinyan et al. 2014). The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) forecast that in 2015 Canada's oil sector would generate more than $100 billion in sales per year; more than $22 billion in payments to federal and provincial governments in the form of taxes, royalties, and land sales; and nearly $60 billion of new investment (Tertzakian and Baynton 2011). The 2015–2016 oil price turmoil affected the value of Canadian currency and resulted in sharp revisions of economic forecasts, further underscoring Canada's dependence on the fossil fuel sector.

Canada's transformation into a globally significant fossil fuel producer and exporter coincided with a transformation in federal governance and environmental policy in support of oil and gas activity during the Harper administration of 2006–2015 (Carter 2016a; Gibson 2012; MacNeil 2014; Winfield 2014; Zalik 2015a). In some respects, the Harper government's promotion of oil and gas development is an extension of a long-standing pattern. As Winfield (2013) observes, the Harper government aligned with “long-standing orientations in federal energy policy” (24) while it actively facilitated private-led extraction of resources destined for export by ensuring trade, fiscal and environmental policy regimes were amenable to the sector. The roots of this approach can be traced to free trade agreements adopted by both Conservative and Liberal governments since the late 1980s, as well as long-standing efforts by previous Liberal governments to decentralize environmental policy to the provinces and offer fiscal incentives for fossil fuel development. In addition, these governments stalled on substantive policy action toward climate change mitigation (Winfield 2013, 21–23; see also Doern and Gattinger 2003).

Yet the Harper administration's approach was also distinctive. Prime Minister Harper emphasized his administration's commitment to make Canada into an “energy superpower” (Canada 2006). To achieve this, the federal government undertook what Winfield (2013) describes as an “accelerated pursuit” of the “traditional” energy–environmental policy approach, one that included a remarkable “removal of perceived environmental constraints” on fossil fuel development (38). This approach was particularly evident during the majority government period (2011–2015) when the Harper administration dramatically revised environmental regulation relevant to oil and gas activity, notably through two omnibus budget bills in 2012. These efforts primarily resulted in constraints to public input and participation in natural resource projects overseen by the National Energy Board, reduced protection of federal waterways, limited federal environmental assessment (EA) requirements (DeSouza 2014), and accelerated review timelines for EAs (Doelle 2012). Over this period, the federal government also weakened its regulatory capacity and scientific knowledge through cuts at environmental departments and government-funded research centres while simultaneously implementing restrictive communications policies that prevented experts from sharing findings demonstrating the negative impacts of the oil and gas industry (Carter 2016a; Greenwood 2013; Zalik 2015b). The Harper administration concurrently attempted to suppress dissenting environmental and social justice groups by requiring detailed Canada Revenue Agency audits of charitable groups critical of oil development (Solomon and Everson 2014), limiting public participation at hearings on key oil development projects, denouncing critical groups, and criminalizing dissent (Carter 2016a; Zalik 2015b).

Although these federal policy shifts were unprecedented and important in establishing a particular policy tone across the country, environmental policy in Canada has historically been remarkably decentralized. Environmental regulatory authority for oil and gas activity rests primarily with the provinces as a result of Canada's Constitution Act, 1867, which established provincial jurisdiction over matters relating to natural resources on land (Cairns 1992; Mackay 2004); this has been reinforced by a more recent federal retreat from environmental policy-making over our analysis period (Doern and Gattinger 2003; Esman 1984; Gattinger 2010; Harrison 1996). Hoberg (1997) typifies Canada as a “highly decentralized federalism,” in which “most areas of environmental protection [are] still dominated by the provinces” (355, 362). More strongly, Huque and Watton (2010) reference “provincial supremacy over most resource matters” (77). Given provincial control over environmental policy around the oil and gas sector, our analysis focused on the provincial level. Of course, there is variation in the products and the trajectory of development for each province, which we briefly describe next.

Alberta accounts for a significant portion of the country's total production of liquid hydrocarbons (82 percent in 2014 on the basis of data in CAPP 2016; Figure 1) and for 97 percent of Canada's oil reserves (International Energy Agency 2009). In 2014, Alberta produced 2.28 million barrels of oil per day (1,221.6 million barrels per year), with a rate of production of 5.2 million barrels per day approved for development (Huot and Grant 2012). From 2009 to 2014, the Alberta government's revenues from non-renewable resources (predominantly oil and gas, direct impacts only) accounted for 20–30 percent of total revenue (or 26–32 percent of GDP; Figure 2). Alberta's tar sands industry has featured prominently in national policy debates, and it has been a point of vociferous contention particularly in affected Indigenous communities (Carter and Zalik 2016; Haluza-DeLay and Carter 2016; Zalik 2015b).

Figure 1: Provincial total liquid hydrocarbons (million barrels per year), 2009–2014.

Liquid hydrocarbons include crude oil, synthetic crude oil (derived by upgrading bitumen from tar sands), condensate, pentanes plus, propane, and butanes.

Source: CAPP (2016, Table 3.7e).

Figure 2: Direct oil and gas contributions to total provincial gross domestic product, 2009 to 2013.

Notes: Oil and gas contributions relate to extraction, support activities, natural gas distribution, oil and gas engineering construction, petroleum refineries, and pipeline transportation.

Source: Statistics Canada, Table 381–0030.

Saskatchewan, touted as an energy giant (Government of Saskatchewan 2013) given its diversity of energy resources (primarily oil, uranium, and coal), is the country's second largest oil-producing province, producing more than a half a million barrels per day in 2014 (191.6 million barrels per year; Figure 1). Oil has been produced in Saskatchewan since the 1940s; however, the intensity of oil production has sharply increased since the mid-1990s, particularly since 2011, as a result of new horizontal drilling and multistage fracking technologies and other enhanced recovery methods expanding, particularly in the Bakken Formation (Carter and Eaton 2016). Over the 2009–2014 period, Saskatchewan's oil sector directly contributed 13 to 24 percent of the province's total revenue (or 20–22 percent of gross domestic product [GDP]; Figure 2). Provincial officials anticipate tar sands will be developed within the province in the next decade (Bakx 2015).

Newfoundland and Labrador is the country's third largest and most recent oil producer. Oil extraction occurs offshore, east of the island of Newfoundland, and is managed by a joint federal–provincial board (the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board [C-NLOPB]). Four oil projects, approximately 350 kilometers offshore, have produced more than 1.5 billion barrels of oil since production began in 1997 (C-NLOPB 2015) and more than 200,000 barrels per day in 2014 (78.9 million barrels per year; Figure 1). Numerous additional projects are at various stages of review or exploration both on and offshore. Total direct revenues from oil out of total governmental revenues in Newfoundland and Labrador ranged from 27 to 34 percent (or 27 to 33 percent of GDP; Figure 2).

In British Columbia, the emphasis is largely on the production of natural gas (Figure 3). A moratorium on offshore oil development has been in place since 1972; however, hydrocarbon extraction activity on land has expanded in the province as a result of shale gas development, liquefied natural gas (LNG) installation, and pipeline construction. CAPP's data indicate shale gas in northeastern British Columbia could account for more than 20 percent of North American gas production by 2020 (Campbell and Horne 2011). British Columbia also relied on shale gas and LNG as a major source of revenue until natural gas prices declined: in 2010–2011, the sector was estimated to contribute $1.25 billion in revenues (3.5–4.4 percent of GDP; Figure 2; see also Smith 2014). Controversial expansions of the oil and gas sector in British Columbia include proposed pipelines between Alberta and the British Columbia coast (Northern Gateway and Transmountain), as well as four gas pipelines connecting shale plays to LNG export terminals. Accompanying continental mobilization against the Keystone XL pipeline, rejected by the Obama administration, these have faced considerable opposition, notably on the part of First Nations as well as the broader population (Ghomeshi and Zalik 2013; Hoberg 2013; McCreary and Milligan 2014; Veltmeyer and Bowles 2014).

Figure 3: Provincial marketed natural gas (million cubic metres per year), 2009–2014.

Source: CAPP (2016, Table 3.10b).

Oil and gas production has undoubtedly reshaped the economies of these economies. Moreover, the environmental impacts and risks of the oil and gas sector in each province are notable and broad ranging, including, for example, threats to freshwater in British Columbia, the elimination of swaths of boreal forest in Alberta, the disruption of native grasslands in Saskatchewan, the pollution of marine ecosystems in Newfoundland and Labrador, and, of course, substantial greenhouse gas emissions in each province.1

Our analysis of these four leading oil- and gas-producing provinces revealed three striking environmental policy commonalities: (a) policy streamlining, particularly through the consolidation of environmental policy-making authority in development-oriented agencies; (b) the continued withholding, or active withdrawing, of opportunities for public involvement in debates on fossil fuel development; and (c) policy inaction on cumulative effects. We discuss each, situated within discussions from the broader literature.

Regulatory Streamlining

Governments' retreat from environmental regulation often involves “streamlining” regulations and removing “duplication” (Inwood, Johns, and O'Reilly 2011, 180; Olewiler 2006, 144), such as by standardizing and accelerating approval processes (Hawke 2002; Rabe 1999) and centralizing authority for environmental protection into a “one-window” approach (Harrison 1996, 105–06). These streamlining efforts are often motivated by budget cuts that force regulators to revise regulatory practices (Huque and Watton 2010; Inwood et al. 2011; Rabe 1999). In the case of oil- and gas-dependent jurisdictions, researchers note how governments tend to place regulatory authority for oil and gas in agencies established to foster the sector, as opposed to emphasizing environmental protection (Spence 2013, 457–58). As Rabe and Borick (2013) observe, American states tend to insulate the oil and gas sector from environmental challenges by carefully choosing which agency will regulate the industry.

In our interviews across the four fossil fuel provinces, such centralization was noted as long-standing in Newfoundland and Labrador and intensifying in the other provinces. In terms of consolidating regulatory authority in pro-development agencies, the provincial government in Newfoundland and Labrador has a limited role in regulating the offshore oil industry because this authority is delegated to the offshore petroleum board via the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Atlantic Accord Implementation Act, 1987. NGO interviewees frequently stressed that the board is structurally constrained in its ability to assess and regulate environmental impacts from oil development given that it was primarily established to ensure economic benefits from oil and gas rather than environmental protection. The scientific community has long noted this problem as well (Burke, Montevecchi, and Wiese 2012; Fraser and Russell 2016). The board and the federal and provincial governments have also actively attempted to streamline the regulatory process to speed up approval times and foster oil development through use of memoranda of understanding across provincial borders that “strive to avoid regulatory duplication and unnecessary delay” in project reviews (Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency 2013). The board has also expanded its use of basin-wide strategic EAs, a move interpreted by interviewees concerned about the environmental impacts of offshore oil development as a way to accelerate EA processes.

British Columbia recently adopted a “single-window” regulator approach, placing primary regulatory authority with the Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) in 2010. Interviewees emphasized that for the most part the industry's environmental impacts are not regulated through the Ministry of Environment but through the OGC, including permits for road building and water use—and this is especially controversial given the risks to water posed by fracking (Parfitt 2010). In 2010, British Columbia's Oil and Gas Activities Act (Government of British Columbia 2008) was updated, leaving the OGC as the key regulator while expanding its enforcement powers and responsibility for technical standards. Following the act's proclamation, community and environmental groups stated that requirements on industry were insufficient to address health and environmental issues.

In 2013, Alberta similarly centralized regulation for all energy projects through the Responsible Energy Development Act (Government of Alberta 2012), which created the Alberta Energy Regulator to streamline project reviews through a single-window approach (see Jamieson, Olynyk, and Ference 2012). The Alberta Energy Regulator now regulates all energy resources in the province, from initial applications for exploration to final reclamation, and manages appeals on development decisions. Importantly, it is also tasked with administering Alberta's Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (Government of Alberta 2000), formerly the responsibility of the province's two environmental departments, Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.

Saskatchewan has also recently centralized regulatory authority for oil and gas activity: in 2012, the new Saskatchewan Ministry of the Economy assumed the lead regulatory role for oil and gas, with a mandate to “advance economic growth to generate wealth and opportunity in Saskatchewan” (Ministry of the Economy 2015). At the same time, the ministry has become the lead regulator for resource development in the province whereas the involvement of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment in decisions on oil and gas diminishes.

Notably, regulatory streamlining in some of these provinces is justified by budget cuts. This is particularly apparent in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Alberta, interviewees within and outside government stressed that inadequate provincial resources and staff were dedicated to monitor environmental impacts of the tar sands. A former Alberta Energy policy-maker interviewed stated directly in an interview that the rapid pace of tar sands development overtook government's capacity to respond to the industry's environmental impacts. Nearly a decade ago, Woynillowicz (2006) noted reductions in Alberta Environment Department's staff just as tar sands production was significantly expanding. More recently, Adkin (2016) tracked changes in the capacity of the Alberta Environment Department, concluding that the boom period of the late 1990s to 2008 “was very closely associated with fewer resources for the Department of the Environment, as the government sought to attract investment in the oil sands” (100).

As for Saskatchewan, the Wall government has implemented annual budget cuts and regulatory “leaning” initiatives since 2007, fostering rapid economic growth of extractive industries. Department budget cuts were accompanied by increased workloads because of unprecedented oil development. For example, reviews of upstream oil and gas proposals by the Lands Branch dramatically increased from approximately 1,000 proposals in 1997 to nearly 7,000 in 2011. Yet staffing did not match this increase in activity (in interviews Lands Branch officials reported that review capacity remains limited to approximately 10 staff people), resulting in very limited oversight of regulatory compliance.

In all four cases, the provinces' capacity to regulate the sector's environmental impacts is structurally limited because control over environmental regulation is centralized and assigned to departments or boards more oriented toward fostering the oil and gas industry rather than to environmental protection. Furthermore, in Alberta and Saskatchewan, provincial governments have actively undermined environmental regulatory capacity through budget cuts, even as industry activity increased during the most recent boom.

Impediments to Public Involvement

Recent literatures on Canadian environmental policy and federalism have remarked on the degree to which public involvement in policy-making has waxed and waned over time (Inwood et al. 2011, 208). Hoberg (1997) observed two distinct periods. In the first wave of institutionalized environmental policy in the 1970s, “policy making continued to be dominated by bipartite bargaining, conducted through closed, cooperative negotiations between government and industry” (351), with environmentalist voices mostly excluded. By the second wave of environmentalism in the late 1980s, environmentalists effectively criticized the legitimacy of this arrangement, which resulted in a widening of “traditional bargaining processes to include representatives of environmental interests and others” (352) via multistakeholder processes (see also Harrison 1996; Skogstad 1996). Similarly, Mackay (2004) remarked that “the close relationship between industry and government that determined environmental policy in the past has shifted to a broader consultative process with greater public involvement, especially from environmental groups” (37).

Over the past decade, however, several researchers reported another shift in public access to, and involvement in, the environmental policy process wherein the general public and civil society actors have minimal access to substantive decision making by government and industry actors (Healy, VanNijnatten, and López-Vallejo 2014). Writing specifically on the policy landscape surrounding tar sands development in Alberta, Hoberg and Phillips (2011) reinterpret many of the apparent openings in decision making on natural resources projects as examples of government playing “defence”—giving the impression of engaging with those contesting development while co-opting and deflating opposition to development. The policy system is now remarkably closed, they note. Interviewees from NGOs and independent research bodies from across these four provinces echoed this observation, expressing frustration that significant development decisions are undertaken without adequate public consultation and stressing that the public is impeded in some cases from accessing very basic information about the industry and its impact.

Arguably, further restrictions on public participation under the Harper government, including the increased constraints imposed by modifications under the 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (Gibson 2012) and a second omnibus bill in 2012, were a response to unprecedented attempts at public objections to oil and gas industry expansion. Indeed, the growth and consolidation of Indigenous activism to protect territorial rights and the environment served to stall major oil and gas projects. This crystallized in our study period in the Idle No More movement resisting the substantive retrenchment of Indigenous territorial rights. Indigenous activism was also central to anti-pipeline mobilizations in British Columbia, in calls for a moratorium on tar sands development in Alberta, and in the growth of transnational movements to stall large projects such as the Shell Jackpine Mine Expansion (Tchekwie-Deranger 2009). Although community benefit agreements have been made for development, Indigenous coalitions have called for project suspensions and the substantive implementation of the constitutional duty to consult (Caine and Krogman 2010; Diabo and Pasternak 2011).

Although beyond our scope here, several key events outside our four cases contributed to the regulatory policy context on oil and gas in this period, including the Elsipogtog protest in New Brunswick that was a significant moment in contemporary state repression of Indigenous peoples (Howe 2015). There have indeed been some victories: the 2014 Tsilhqot'in Nation v. British Columbia Supreme Court of Canada decision (Tsilhqot'in Nation cited to SCR) has been hailed as a watershed moment for the recognition of Indigenous rights in British Columbia and across the country, although its implications for substantive change are unclear (Adkin 2016; Black et al. 2014; Cameron and Levitan 2014; Coates and Newman 2014; Diabo and Pasternak 2011, 2014; Laboucan-Massimo 2011; Manuel 2015; McCreary and Milligan 2014; Pasternak 2015; Preston 2013; Schabus 2014; Scott 2013; Vasey 2012).

Regarding public access to the policy process, in our provincial cases we find both stasis—a continuation of historically poor public access to decisions on oil and gas—alongside examples of active rejection of public involvement indicating a moment of closed environmental policy. In Newfoundland and Labrador, public involvement in decisions on offshore oil and gas development has been historically limited. The process for selecting lands for leasing is driven primarily by confidential industry nomination and internal government assessment (C-NLOPB n.d.; Erlandson Consulting Inc. and Petroleum Research Atlantic Canada 2004). Broader public involvement occurs at later stages in the oil development process through EAs. However, public comments have a limited impact on project decisions. For example, before our study, Natural History Society of Newfoundland and Labrador (NHSNL) members had already noted that their comments as intervenors on projects in 1997 and in 2001 (NHSNL 2001, 56) were repetitions of the points made earlier and noted, “We cannot help but question the value of the review process when the criticisms and suggestions are not acted upon” (NHSNL 1997, 6, 185). During the Hebron EA (ExxonMobil Canada Properties 2012), public comments suggest the issue of not responding to public input had not been resolved. One participant suggests establishing “formal mechanisms for independent input and review of environmental assessment processes” (Hebron Public Review 2011, submission by Bill Montevecchi). Another strongly rejects the EA process, stating,

After decades of offshore oil and gas activity in our waters and several major environmental assessment exercises after which nothing much has changed in this regard, the current status of the Hebron assessment is not acceptable. An industry and regulatory regime that fails to acknowledge the level of ignorance and uncertainty that underpin its disingenuous conclusions of minimal and insignificant effects is not an industry or regulatory regime worthy of support.

(Hebron Public Review 2011, submission by Janet Russell, p. 5)

Public involvement in Newfoundland and Labrador is additionally impeded by lack of transparency on environmental impacts because of section 119 of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Atlantic Accord Implementation Act, 1987, which stipulates that data provided by operators to the regulator cannot be disclosed without written permission of the operators (Fraser and Ellis 2009).

Barriers to public consultation are longstanding in Saskatchewan as well. EAs of upstream oil and gas development projects are the main conduit for public involvement in Saskatchewan; however, the infrequency of these assessments means that opportunities are limited. A Lands Branch official interviewee noted that during a period of peak oil and gas activity (2011), proponents submitted nearly 7,000 proposals, but only 20 were referred to the EA Branch for further review. Of these, no EAs were required. Between 1996 and 2013, only three EAs were completed for new oil and gas projects (data provided in 2016 by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment's Environmental Assessment Branch; see also Bowden 2010). Public involvement is also constrained by minimal transparency: Policy-makers interviewed note that departmental field visits to monitor well sites and fines for non-compliance are not consolidated in a publicly accessible and usable form, and public information on chemicals used in fracking is limited (Carter and Eaton 2016).

In Alberta, ongoing barriers to public engagement were strikingly demonstrated when in 2010 the Energy Regulator blocked environmental organizations from submitting Statements of Concern during hearings on Southern Pacific Resource Corporation's in situ tar sands proposal on the basis that they were not directly affected. The Pembina Institute and Fort McMurray Environmental Association appealed the decision. Subsequent legal proceedings revealed that a 2009 briefing note to the Deputy Minister of Alberta Environment indicated that the Alberta government blocked Pembina from participating in these hearings in part because the organization was “now less inclined to work cooperatively” with government given their “publication of negative media on the oil sands” (Pembina Institute v. Alberta 2013, 10). The court ruled that excluding Pembina and other environmental organizations was based on “improper and irrelevant considerations” (Government of Alberta 2013, 12; see also Ecojustice 2013). Furthermore, despite formal avenues for participation, the legalistic and constrained environmental tribunal process makes hearing interventions costly and difficult for Indigenous and farmer-landowner participants, both financially and logistically (Caine and Krogman 2010). The balance of power in favour of the proponent firm extends to their ability to influence the public image of spaces where public hearings take place. This was notable in Shell's 2012 purchase of the naming rights of the Fort McMurray sports complex at which their controversial Jackpine Mine Expansion hearings were held just weeks before they opened (Zalik 2015a).

In British Columbia's northeastern fracking zone, citizen group and landowner interviewees voiced concerns regarding their ability to access information on subsoil leases on their own land. Farmers frequently first learn that a concession has been granted to extract on their property from an industry “land-man.” Firms negotiate surface access on a landowner-by-landowner basis, with no obligation to publicly disclose terms to neighbouring property holders (Zalik 2011). Parallels are obvious with the “Impact Benefit Agreements” negotiated between First Nations and private firms, whose terms are typically subject to confidentiality agreements (Caine and Krogman 2010). There is also a marked lack of transparency in regulatory infractions associated with fracking operations. In 2013, the Vancouver Sun reported more than 800 deficiencies and violations from OGC inspections, yet indicated that the details, including the companies involved, would not be made public (Hoekstra 2013).

Across these four cases, we found significant evidence to suggest that citizens face high barriers to participation in decisions regarding the oil and gas sector. Not only is public access to decision making on oil and gas activity frequently weak, but in various cases it has been actively undermined. At a more fundamental level, interviewees often noted they were unable to access basic data on the impacts of the industry, information that would undoubtedly shape public concerns regarding the sector. These impediments to public involvement appear to be particularly strong in Alberta and British Columbia, where tar sands and fracking industries expanded dramatically in the 2000s. Evidence also indicates that governments neglected to undertake cumulative impact assessment when industry activity escalated, a final and definitive common environmental policy challenge that we identified across the provincial cases.

Policy Inaction on Cumulative Effects

In contrast to this active regulatory retreat and heightened barriers to public engagement, we note a more long-standing failure of energy-dominant governments to assess and respond to the cumulative environmental impacts of expanding oil and gas activities. The sector's cumulative effects refer to the current and projected ecological and social impacts of projects interacting with existing and anticipated developments (Elvin and Fraser 2012; Gunn and Noble 2009; Therivel and Ross 2007): understanding them is a precondition to effectively regulating the industry. Yet in interviews with government policy-makers, independent researchers and scientists and NGO representatives, we heard of a range of policy difficulties hindering cumulative impact assessments in each of the four provinces.

In Alberta, the regulatory process surrounding oil development is focused on individual projects and neglects analyzing cumulative impacts (Parkins 2011; Timoney and Lee 2009). Since the late 1990s, multiple institutions have attempted to address fragmented decision making on tar sands development (e.g., Auditor General of Canada 2011). Most pointedly, the multi-stakeholder Cumulative Environmental Management Authority in Alberta was developed to monitor cumulative impacts of tar sands development and “make recommendations to manage the cumulative environmental effects of regional development on air, land, water and biodiversity” (Cumulative Environmental Management Authority 2012; see also Sheelanere, Noble, and Patrick 2013). Yet as a result of continual delays and the lack of implementation of its recommendations, key members of the committee such as environmental NGOs and Indigenous groups withdrew their participation. A 2008 review of the Cumulative Environmental Management Authority confirmed ongoing “policy and planning gaps” as a key problem (Pricewaterhouse Coopers 2008). New initiatives, such as the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency have yet to address this gap (Auditor General of Canada 2011; Carter 2016b).

Saskatchewan lags behind Alberta on assessing cumulative impacts of this sector. One Environment Ministry interviewee noted that government research is piecemeal and conducted on a project-by-project basis as a result of limited in-house scientific capacity. One notable exception is the 2007 Great Sand Hills Regional Environmental Study, hailed as an ambitious and proactive effort to understand the cumulative regional impacts of gas development and other human activity (Noble 2009). As another Environment Ministry interviewee noted, however, that its recommendations were never implemented because of a change in government.

Similarly, in Newfoundland and Labrador there has been no adequate assessment of the cumulative effect of the oil industry on marine ecosystems. Cumulative effects are mentioned in strategic EAs and project-specific EAs, but the lack of standardized data collection and limited access to data prevent a rigorous assessment. For example, strategic EAs do not identify threshold values (e.g., the level of noise pollution from all ongoing projects; see Baxter, Ross, and Spaling 2001; C-NLOPB 2014; Duinker and Greig 2006), and they consider marine stressors to be additive rather than synergistic (see Weilgart 2007). There are also numerous outstanding data gaps. The petroleum board frequently defers detailed cumulative effects assessments to project-specific assessments, but these studies have also proven inadequate at capturing cumulative impacts. As a case in point, a recent cumulative effects assessment on the Hebron project provided only an extension of the predictions on residual environmental effects, with no specific details on cumulative effects from other industries (ExxonMobil Canada Properties 2012).

British Columbia has also been criticized for not effectively addressing the cumulative impacts of its gas sector (Koop 2010) as a result of challenges in assessing the impacts of the industry beyond extractive sites (e.g., via transportation and export infrastructure). In British Columbia's Northeast Central region, interviewees stressed concerns about the full range of cumulative impacts, from groundwater and aquifer depletion and contamination to long-term impacts on Indigenous and non-Indigenous livelihoods. Yet, the North Eastern Energy and Mines and Advisory Committee, which sought to measure cumulative effects associated with the natural gas industry, was terminated by the provincial government in 2010. In response to continued concerns about assessing cumulative impacts, British Columbia recently introduced a “Cumulative Effects Framework” for integrated natural resource management. However, the responsible ministry has explicitly stated that the framework is not intended to serve as a decision-making tool or to establish “thresholds to automatically limit development” (Malkinson 2014, 3).

There are clear gaps in cumulative assessment across all four provinces alongside regulatory streamlining and barriers to public engagement. These three commonalities suggest a convergence in environmental policy across Canada's oil- and gas-producing provinces.

Literatures concerning Canadian federalism and environmental policy literature routinely remarks on the provinces' tendency to shape environmental regulation to meet economic development goals. Esman (1984) notes that provinces tend to provide “a favorable environment for [industry] in exchange for economic development and financial royalties” (24). Similarly, Rabe (1999) characterizes provincial governments as being “eager to bend existing regulations to satisfy the overriding imperative of economic development, provide minimal enforcement or monitoring of regulated parties” (290) and describes provinces as focusing on “economic development as their overriding environmental policy mission” (292; see also Harrison 1996). More recently, Huque and Watton (2010, 79) similarly argue that Canadian provinces protect their main revenue streams by taking a soft approach to environmental policy. Davis (2012) suggests, for American state cases, that these tendencies are particularly striking in energy-dominant subnational governments. Governments' dependence on fossil fuel extraction, met with the political influence of industry, results in a conventional style of politics (Rabe and Borick 2013), trumping environmental policy with economic development goals. In Canada, interviewees frequently used this logic explicitly. For example, one Alberta Environment interviewee argued that not approving a tar sands development would be stranding resource revenue from Albertans. Similarly, in Alberta the term resource sterilization is oxymoronically used to describe project initiatives that constrain extraction by protecting ecologically or culturally sensitive areas. Similarly, in Saskatchewan, a former Environment Ministry policy-maker argued how the province's regulatory environment reflected public sentiment of being “happy for the tax revenue” and “just want[ing] a bigger piece of the pie.” Skogstad (1996) once provocatively remarked that in Alberta, “Environmental policy is energy policy” (108). Given what we heard across the four provincial cases, this observation extends to Canada's other fossil fuel provinces as well.

Our cross-provincial analysis provides insight into several specific and notable trends toward environmental policy convergence in these leading oil- and gas-producing provinces. First, we see parallels across the cases in that environmental policy streamlining limits government regulatory capacity by consolidating authority for environmental policy-making in development-oriented agencies. Second, our research indicates ongoing and increased impediments to public involvement in decisions on oil and gas activity. Third, the four provinces exhibit a long-standing disregard for the cumulative impact assessment. We would argue these three central environmental policy challenges in Canada's current fossil fuel producers are likely to be replicated at new oil and gas extraction sites.

Seen more broadly, this convergence aligns with what Heynen et al. (2007) characterize as a neoliberal environmental governance model. Neoliberalism is generally understood in the critical political economy literature as a policy shift away from government regulation to market-led governance seeking economic growth and competiveness. Neoliberalism is marked by a rollback of state intervention (most notably deregulation and the privatization of regulation) and a rollout of market-enhancing policies, such as trade and investment agreements (Crouch 2006; Glyn 2006; Jessop 2016; Peck 2010). Speaking to the specific point of the environment within this neoliberal paradigm, Heynen et al. (2007) observe that neoliberal shifts in environmental governance involve decreasing regulations that constrain corporations' access to environmental resources, reducing governmental staff and programs protecting the environment, devolving environmental regulatory responsibility to lower levels of government, privatizing environmental regulation (outsourcing to industry; using market mechanisms rather than government regulations), and limiting citizens' engagement with environmental regulation. Together, these changes facilitate resource extraction for short-term economic gain while eroding the opportunity for long-term, ecologically sustainable development.

Similarly, Huque and Watton (2010) observe policy convergence on regulatory models that are marked by deep cuts to environmental regulatory capacity, which in turn justify deeper reliance on voluntary or corporate-led regulation, for example through corporate self-reporting or self-monitoring. The trends documented in our cases, notably the shift toward enhanced regulatory streamlining, deregulation, privatization, and the raising of barriers to public engagement confirm many of Heynen et al.'s (2007) and Huque and Watton's observations. These four leading oil- and gas-producing provinces show entrenched, and indeed deepening, convergence around a neoliberal environmental governance model intended to facilitate the expansion of oil and gas extraction.

However, although these cases confirm patterns of active environmental policy change, they also point to the impact of government passivity in environmental policy as development landscapes shift. This is perhaps best captured in the notion of policy drift, which draws attention to how policy inaction in the face of change can weaken governments' responses to risk. Hacker, Thelen, and Pierson (2013) define drift as “when institutions or policies are deliberately held in place while their context shifts, changing their effects,” whereby “those wishing to effect change need only block the updating of existing rules” (1–2) as external circumstances change. More important, policy drift is the “politically driven failure of public policies to adapt to the shifting realities of the economy and society” (Hacker and Pierson 2010, 170, emphasis added).

Specifically referencing Canadian cases, Banting and Myles (2013) emphasize that “there is a tendency to equate ‘retrenchment’ with authoritative changes in formal rules, policies, and procedures. But an exclusive focus on action ignores the consequences of policy inaction” (3). When policy is not adjusted in response to new risks, it “fails to keep pace” (3), resulting in de facto regulatory retrenchment. They note that “deliberate inaction and neglect in the face of social change is a way of slowly marginalizing the welfare state” (20). We argue that a similar policy drift in these focal cases amounts to a marginalizing of environmental policy capacity around oil and gas activity, particularly with reference to the long-standing avoidance of assessing cumulative effects as oil and gas activity intensifies.

These shared patterns of environmental policy across the leading oil- and gas-producing provinces in Canada suggest policy convergence toward facilitating oil and gas development at a time of intensifying oil and gas activity. This convergence confirms earlier observations about soft environmental policy given provinces' overriding economic interests, particularly the tendency toward conventional politics in energy-dominant jurisdictions that are dependent on oil and gas revenues and pressured by the industry for amenable environmental policy. These cases align with the broader shift toward neoliberal environmental governance, but they also draw attention to the perhaps quiet but powerful impact of provinces' policy passivity when confronted by an expanding oil and gas industry. At the same time, this convergence occurs while regulatory backstops have been weakened or dismantled at the federal level. Indeed, these policy parallels may come to demarcate a particular moment in Canadian energy federalism, a period when neither level of government was regulating with much enthusiasm for the protection of the environment.

This pattern appears stable, even amidst the economic and political flux since 2014. Gas prices have recovered from their most recent decline, but the impact of stagnant oil prices continues to reverberate. Over the 2014–2015 period, natural gas production increased by 4 percent in British Columbia and by 2 percent in Alberta, but oil production fell significantly in Newfoundland and Labrador (by more than 20 percent) and slightly in British Columbia and Saskatchewan (by 5 percent in both)—and, surprisingly, it increased in Alberta by 6 percent. More telling perhaps is the industry's withdrawal from exploration (exploration spending fell by 43 percent from 2014 to 2015) and well completions (in 2015, the number of oil wells completed had fallen by 58 percent in Alberta and 54 percent in Saskatchewan, whereas the number of gas wells completed in British Columbia fell by 17 percent; CAPP 2016, Tables 1.5b, 1.6b, and 4.2b).

The resultant economic pressures are no doubt informing environmental regulatory capacity and willingness to regulate across the provinces, even in the midst of major political transformation in two provinces. In 2015, the Alberta electorate chose a New Democratic Party government, a historic change after 44 consecutive years of Progressive Conservative–led government. Although the New Democratic Party government has taken steps that hold promise for strengthening the regulatory regime around oil and gas in that province (undertaking a royalty review and fortifying policies to reduce carbon emissions), it has not fundamentally altered the regulatory framework around oil and gas and is now scrambling to maintain its revenue base. Likewise, Newfoundland and Labrador, which elected a Liberal government in 2015 after 12 years of Progressive Conservative government, has returned to “have not” times with soaring debt and unemployment. Although the province rejected newly proposed onshore fracking for the near future, it remains focused on expanding offshore oil development. In 2016, Saskatchewan reelected the firmly pro-extraction Saskatchewan Party for a third term, signalling a historic political realignment in that province (Conway 2016) just as the scale of the province's economic deterioration was beginning to be felt. British Columbia appears to have weathered this period better given its greater diversity of revenue streams, yet the government remains as committed as ever to LNG. Put simply, given the ongoing oil price downturn and continuing pressures to expand oil and gas development, most of these producing provinces have fewer resources and capacity to strengthen environmental regulation around oil and gas extraction—and none is highly motivated to do so.

Meanwhile, although the 2015 federal election of a Liberal government provided an opening for significant environmental policy changes (not least of all movement toward a national price on carbon and the revisiting of environmental assessment processes), Trudeau has approved pipelines that will foster the expansion of tar sands production, decisions that will heighten state–community confrontations, particularly contestation by Indigenous communities (Gunton 2016). Moreover, it remains to be seen what new constraints will follow the inauguration of President Trump, a denier of climate change and promoter of fossil fuel extraction and pipelines. We are reluctant to predict the future of environmental policy around oil and gas in these provinces given these still-unfolding political and economic changes, but we do not anticipate dramatic improvement in the near term. Instead, the past two years provide further evidence of ongoing pressures to expand fossil fuel extraction regardless of dramatic changes in political leadership.


We thank the individuals interviewed during the study (in accordance with ethical approvals received for this study and following Canada's “Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans,” names of interviewees are withheld), as well as the students involved in this project: Annette Angell, David Campanella, Amanda Chrisanthus, Jessica Dawe, Sandra Elvin, Janet Fishlock, Christine Furtado, Leah Fusco, Kimia Ghomeshi, Yordanka Marcheva, Leigh McDougall, Brittany McNena, Katherine Orr, Amit Praharaj, Leanne Ross, Dave Vasey, and Francis Yoo. We also thank Emily Eaton and John Peters for their guidance. This research was funded by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council Strategic Research Grant.


1 Given space limitations, we direct readers to the following sources. On Alberta, see Foote (2012) and Grant et al. (2013). On British Columbia, see Swift et al. (2011), Krzyzanowski (2012), Williams (2012), Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (2014), and Rivard et al. (2014). On Newfoundland and Labrador, see Brander-Smith, Therrien, and Tobin (1990), Transport Canada (2007), and Fraser (2014). Finally, on Saskatchewan, see Great Sand Hills Scientific Advisory Committee (2007) and Nasen, Noble, and Johnstone (2011).

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