Polluter pays principle in Alberta: A state of and a foundation for the future?

Polluter pays principle in Alberta: A state of and a foundation for the future?

Polluter pays principle in Alberta: A state of and a foundation for the future?


The ELC ‘s most recent report The Polluter Pays Principle in Alberta Law provides a summary of the polluter pays principle in Alberta law.   This report is provided as an introduction to the principle and how it is often operationalized in Alberta law.   The report provides a foundation for future work on ensuring our laws better reflect the polluter pays principle.

The Polluter Pays Principle in Alberta Law by the Environmental Law Centre
The Polluter Pays Principle in Alberta Law by the Environmental Law Centre

by the Environmental Law Centre

December 2019

Published: December 16th, 2019

What is clear is that while the polluter pays principle seems simple – when you pollute, you pay the costs associated with that pollution – application of the principle is often politically charged and complex.

The ELC recognizes that many environmental and social costs of development go unpriced. This situation is not unique to Alberta rather it is a problem economy wide (regionally, nationally and globally). The global nature of our economies and of the pollution itself add to the challenges of implementing an effective polluter pays system. In this regard, movement of the polluter pays system in one jurisdiction may require others to follow suit.

The ELC report provides a summary of how the polluter pays principle is applied in Alberta through regulatory standards, financial assurance and fees or levies. The results are highlighted in the “report card” below.

This report card should not be reviewed as an indictment of Alberta law and policy in and of itself rather it provides a snapshot as to how the province applies the foundations of the polluter pays system in our laws.  Not captured in the grade provided are some of the specific challenges that arise in applying the principle. These challenges can be categorized into distinct areas of:

  • Who has to pay and who is exempt from payment;
  • How much of the costs of pollution must be covered; and
  • When and how is accountability with the polluter pays principle ensured.

It must be recognized that there is significant nuance in how the system is implemented on a case by case basis. For instance, a duty to reclaim and remediate cites in Alberta clearly exists in Alberta law, however current regulation and discretionary measures around financial security to meet these obligations, when combined with insolvencies, has allowed these duties to be avoided.

The report card grades are meant to be used a general reference point and will be a launching point for further ELC work.

Significant areas of concern that are prioritized for further work and law reform include:

  1. Ensuring environmental obligations are not avoided through insolvency;
  2. Ensuring Alberta’s polluter pays system starts to reflect the costs imposed on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems: and
  3. Ensuring a workable system of the polluter pays principle can apply to cumulative environmental effects.


The Environmental Law Centre (ELC) has been seeking strong and effective environmental laws since it was founded in 1982. The ELC is dedicated to providing credible, comprehensive and objective legal information regarding natural resources, energy and environmental law, policy and regulation in Alberta. The ELC’s mission is to educate and champion for strong laws and rights so all Albertans can enjoy clean water, clean air and a healthy environment. Our vision is a society where laws secure an environment that sustains current and future generations.

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