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Students look for scientific solutions to land-use regulation issues in Alberta

Undergrads seek out law prof Martin Olszynski for an interdisciplinary research experience
March 30, 2016
University of Calgary environmental science students Scarlett Zhu and Riley Prescott, centre, sought out the expertise of law professor Martin Olszynski, right, for cross-disciplinary projects they created to study current land-use regulations.  Ann-Lise Norman, environmental sciences program director in the Faculty of Science, left, is co-supervising the research collaboration. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

University of Calgary environmental science students Scarlett Zhu and Riley Prescott, centre, sought out the expertise of law professor Martin Olszynski, right, for cross-disciplinary projects they created to study current land-use regulations.  Ann-Lise Norman, environmental sciences program director in the Faculty of Science, left, is co-supervising the research collaboration. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

Law professor Martin Olszynski understands the important relationship between environmental law and science. He earned his BSc in biology before attending law school, and later served as legal counsel in the legal services unit at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

It’s Olszynski’s diverse experience that led two science students to seek him out following an inspiring talk he gave to their Environmental Science 502 class in fall 2014. They were keen on gaining interdisciplinary research experience so each developed a project under the joint supervision of Olszynski and Ann-Lise Norman, interim environmental sciences program director and cross-appointed associate professor of physics and astronomy in the Faculty of Science.

Studying land-use planning initiatives

Riley Prescott, a fifth-year environmental science student concentrating in geology, began working with Olszynski last fall on a comparative analysis of two of Alberta’s recent land-use planning initiatives, the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) and the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP). Olszynski has a long-standing interest in land-use planning, having published his first article on the subject in 2014. After some discussions with Olszynski, Prescott began the task of comparing the two regional plans, and assessing them against best practices as identified in the existing literature.

“We made some interesting discoveries in the process,” says Prescott. “One of the main differences between the two plans is that the LARP has a proposed groundwater section and SSRP doesn’t,” which, as he points out in his paper, is likely a reflection of the different primary land uses — oilsands development and agriculture — in each region.

Adding adaptive management into the fold

In the winter term, Scarlett Zhu, a fourth-year environmental science student concentrating in biology, worked with Olszynski on a project examining the implementation and effectiveness of adaptive management in Alberta’s energy resource sector.

Zhu’s research, which will form a major part of an Occasional Paper being written by Olszynski for the Canadian Institute of Resources Law, includes content analysis of various regulatory documents (environmental impacts statements, regulatory approvals, and follow-up reports) to assess the manner in which adaptive management is being applied in the context of ten energy projects in the province.  

Zhu is pragmatic about the need for this kind of research. “People recognize a need to find a synergy, and applying scientific approaches to regulatory problems can produce more credible results, and encourages people to see both perspectives on regulatory issues.”

As Olszynski points out, adaptive management has been around since the 1970s, but has really taken off in the past 10 years in terms of resource development and the mitigation of environmental effects from major projects such as the Northern Gateway pipeline.

“It’s my hope that this project gives us a concrete picture of how adaptive management is being implemented, if it’s effective, and what kind of recommendations we might make for law and policy going forward,” says Olszynski.

A beneficial relationship for all Albertans

Both professors are impressed with the quality of the students’ work, and have noted the collateral benefits of making existing governmental documents on the topics easier to digest and understand.

“The integration between science and the law really does affect us all,” says Norman. “If this research is read and taken to heart by a minister who can simply summarize what has happened to date, they can more easily make decisions about what type of activities can and should take place on our common lands. This research is beneficial for everyone.”