May 27, 2021

Professor takes the lead in environmental impact assessment course

Award-winning, hands-on approach prepares students for the field
David V. Wright
Outside of the lecture hall, David Wright promotes sustainability in his lifestyle.

In 2019, a federal bill that would become the Impact Assessment Act was weaving its way through Parliament. The act outlined the process for assessing impacts of major projects taking place within Canada’s borders and even beyond, when Canadian companies operate internationally.

The Impact Assessment Act focuses on the importance of a project’s environmental, social, health and economic factors, as well as the environmental implications the work scope will have on the surrounding flora, fauna, and wildlife.

Recognizing the need to refocus the instruction of environmental impact assessments to align with the 2019 Impact Assessment Act, assistant professor David V. Wright of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law developed an experiential learning course that actively engages students in real-world applications of environmental law, and forged new community connections.

The course hones in on local economic, environmental and social issues, including climate change and Indigenous perspectives on resource and environmental management. Wright is honoured with the 2021 UCalgary Sustainability Teaching Award for his efforts in broadening the scope of the Environmental Impact Assessment Law (EIA) course to foster critical thinking skills, diverse perspectives within the field of sustainability.

Wright describes his Sustainability Award recognition as “humbling” as he recognizes the work of fellow recipients and nominees. “The awards acknowledge the amazing work that we do, including previous winners in this category,” he says, adding the award represents positive feedback for his work as an educator, validating the effort and dedication he and students put into the course.

Course promotes community engagement

Students in the course have the opportunity to get a closer look at environmental law by examining and debating documents, reviewing court and tribunal decisions, and even analyzing expert evidence to explore sustainability frameworks and theory.

“Environmental law is about taking a long view of development and environmental conservation, while balancing the economy,” says Wright. “One area that is visible is the review and approval of major infrastructure projects.”

From senior lawyers and industry professionals to Indigenous leaders, students gain diverse perspectives on experiences, knowledge and project impacts through networking opportunities.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, students met with senior officials of the Tsuut’ina Nation, walking the land at the site of the proposed Springbank dry reservoir. The experience helped them learn first-hand about the significant impacts of industrial activity in the area while listening to community concerns.

The course, which was developed in consultation with communities and stakeholders, draws from Wright’s professional and scholarly background as a Master of Laws graduate from Stanford Law School and as former general counsel for the Gwich’in Tribal Council in the Northwest Territories. Wright incorporates scientific, economic and philosophical materials in his classes to promote sustainability-knowledge basics through the use of data-based tools. Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index and podcast-style sessions with leading experts keep his students engaged in the material and current in the latest technological advancements within sustainability.

Positive student experience

Wright’s unique approach to the course concepts have also been praised by his current and former students.

Kim Macnab, BA’11, is a student of UCalgary’s LLM program focusing on natural resources, energy and environmental law. As legal counsel for the Alberta Utilities Commission, Macnab finds value in Wright’s approach to adapting the course to current legislation.

“Out of the courses I’ve taken so far, David’s was exceptional,” Macnab says. “He manages to deliver practical, applicable legislative knowledge while deftly tying in underlying theoretical perspectives.”

Macnab says she values courses that cover the legislation she encounters in practice, while also turning a more academic and theoretical lens on current issues. 

“If I've learned anything practising regulatory law, it's the value of being up to date on changes to the regulatory regime,” says Macnab. “David's EIA course was about as current as a course could possibly be, given how recently the legislation was passed, which made it incredibly useful!”

The University of Calgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. We aim to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in our academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability. 

David Wright is an assistant professor of torts, negotiation and environmental impact assessment law at UCalgary’s Faculty of Law. After completing his JD and MA at Dalhousie University, Wright completed the LLM program at Stanford University in 2016. Before joining UCalgary, Wright held positions with Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, the Gwich’in Tribal Council in the Northwest Territories, and the United Nations Development Program.