Monday, December 15, 2008

Oilsands Propaganda

“In short, industry and government might claim that unfavourable reports are "propaganda" but their own lack of real evidence clearly shows that they are themselves in the propaganda business. There is an out for the minister. It is time for an inquiry into oilsands operations, done by a panel of experts independent of petroleum companies.”
- Dr. David Schindler

Who's dishing real oilsands propaganda?
Gov't decries environmentalist agenda, but refuses to subject data to non-partisan scientific scrutiny

By David Schindler December 15, 2008

This week, Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner is in Poland, expected to defend the oilsands from being considered as a source of "dirty oil." I don't envy him. In the past, international criticism has been largely based on the high emissions of greenhouse gases from mining the oilsands. This is changing rapidly in recent weeks.

In the past several days, two reports, one on losses of boreal birds as the result of habitat disturbance and another on seepage from tailings ponds, have been released by groups of scientists who are supported by environmental groups. A casual inspection of the reports' bibliographies reveals that many, if not all, of their claims are based on peer-reviewed papers in reputable scientific journals. Yet industry and Alberta government spokespeople have dismissed both reports as "environmentalist propaganda," although they have provided no real evidence to support their criticism. We are expected to be reassured by explanations that any seepage from toxic tailing ponds is caught in ditches and pumped back into the ponds (just who will pay for this after the companies leave?)

We are supposed to believe that industry-sponsored studies done by the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) and the Cumulative Effects Management Association (CEMA). But neither of the latter organizations has issued any peer-reviewed publications or public reports that shed light on the state of the environment in the oilsands area. RAMP was the subject of a scathing peer review by three prominent federal scientists in late 2004, and has shown very little evidence of having taken corrective measures since then. Its data bases are considered to be proprietary, so they are not available for scientists at large to scrutinize. CEMA has been boycotted by most of the original members from aboriginal communities and NGOs, who resigned in protest that the group's decisions were dominated by industry and government. The expected report on the "instream flow needs" to maintain the Athabasca River that was promised in 2005 was not ready, and has been replaced by ad hoc measures for the next several years. In short, industry and government might claim that unfavourable reports are "propaganda" but their own lack of real evidence clearly shows that they are themselves in the propaganda business.

Another discouraging recent report calls into question the widely touted carbon capture techniques being promoted to justify continued expansion of the oilsands. This report is by recognized experts. Indeed, many of the greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands activity will emanate from monster trucks and other mobile emitters. One doesn't need to be an expert to know that such sources are not easily amenable to carbon capture. Perhaps a more reasonable solution would be to make the oilsands developers neutralize their greenhouse gas emissions by paying for carbon capture at stationary sources, such as coal-fired power plants.

More trouble for Renner is certainly ahead. Several peer-reviewed scientific papers and government reports already document serious declines in caribou and large carnivorous mammals in the oilsands area. It is only a matter of time until someone summarizes these in a public report. Papers on acid rain are in preparation. The claims of people living downstream of the oilsands that they are being poisoned by chemical releases from the oilsands mines are unresolved, with government and industry claiming that all of the pollutants in the river are "natural." The real answer certainly lies somewhere between these polar positions, but no detailed study has been publicly released, only more assurances.

Fortunately, the veracity of propaganda claims from either side about environmental destruction in the oilsands is easy for citizens to check for themselves: Google Earth is accessible on most home computers. It is easy for anyone to see that enormous areas are being rapidly stripped of forest, mined, or covered by tailings ponds. It is also easy to tell that reclamation efforts are very small by comparison. In short, propaganda is not effective in the electronic world. Citizens should expect something better than hollow assurances from government. Both industry and green groups should be expected to back their claims with data and reviews by their scientific peers.

The Google Earth inspection makes it very clear that the stakes for Albertans are very high. What appears to be profitable now may not appear like such a good deal after the 20 per cent of the province underlain by bitumen deposits has been exploited, left with polluted waters and unrecoverable ecosystems. All Albertans should be worried about the state of the province that will be left for their grandchildren. Exploited carefully, the oilsands should provide a good living for at least three generations of Albertans. Google Earth reveals that recent expansions have not been careful.

There is an out for the minister. It is time for an inquiry into oilsands operations, done by a panel of experts independent of petroleum companies. RAMP, CEMA and other studies relevant to sorting out the real cost of development should be required to submit their data to the inquiry panel. The panel's report should analyze the long-term environmental and financial costs of several scenarios based on different rates and methods of development and reclamation, and spell out issues that must be addressed to protect and reclaim the environment before further expansions are approved. The report should be publicly released, so that all Albertans can view the issues for themselves. The stakes are simply too high to rely on the conflicting claims of polarized groups.

Dr. David Schindler is Killam Memorial Chair and professor of ecology at the University of Alberta.

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