Megaproject review in the megaprogram context: examining alberta bitumen development

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Environmental assessment
Impact assessment
Cost-benefit analysis
Oil sands
Tar sands

In recent decades northern Alberta has come to be one of the world's most important sources of new oil production. There are 175 billion barrels of bitumen under development, and government and developers are rapidly expanding their capacity to produce it, often through the construction of megaprojects. Both the federal and Alberta governments have review processes in place to scrutinize proposals for new projects. It is the aim of this thesis to examine how such processes should be conducted, to evaluate the federal and Alberta processes, and to identify means with which these processes might be improved. Megaprojects, and the 'megaprograms' that megaprojects may exist within as they do in the case of bitumen development, pose numerous challenges to project review. Therefore a robust project review process is necessary to ensure that only sound development proceeds and the public interest is protected. Twenty-two sets of 'good practices' are identified. The good practices are used as a measuring stick to evaluate the existing federal and Alberta review processes. The results of the evaluation are multi-facetted but can be summed up as concerning. Bitumen development is shaping Canadian society today, yet the federal and Alberta processes for reviewing proposals has serious shortcomings. To help inform the good practices, particularly with respect to sound methodology in impact assessment, a cost-benefit analysis of the Kearl bitumen mine is undertaken. The case study concludes that the project could be an overall net social cost to society, in large part because of the high costs of the project and its greenhouse gas damages. It is concluded that cost-benefit analysis is highly useful to project review and should be used in either its traditional form, or in a modified way, though always in respect of its limitations. Eighty three recommendations for the federal and Alberta governments are identified to help improve the process for the review of bitumen megaproject proposals. Many recommendations revolve around the need for the governments to fill in gaps with respect to cumulative effects management and planning of the bitumen megaprogram.

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Thomas Gunton
Environment: School of Resource and Environmental Management
Thesis type: 
(Dissertation) Ph.D.