Cutting through rhetoric that so often dominates debate over Canada's oil sands, a new report by a prominent academic group is a comprehensive snapshot of the failings and successes of all the industry's stakeholders and raises hope for a new era of oversight.
The peer-reviewed report, to be published Wednesday by the Royal Society of Canada, takes aim at oil companies, governments and environmental groups alike while recommending steps to improve environmental monitoring in the economically vital industry.
It paints Ottawa as an absentee oil sands parent and laments Alberta's weak regulatory system, adding both governments' efforts haven't "kept pace" with development. It says industry has failed in efforts to restore mined land to its original state. But it tosses the stakeholders a bone, too, saying frequent claims of declining air quality and rising cancer rates have no scientific footing.
Although often a target, a chastened Alberta appeared happy to take its lumps from academics, not activists.
"The report is solid and comprehensive. It raises issues that need to be addressed and puts into perspective the actual impacts of oil sands development," Environment Minister Rob Renner, who spent last week at international climate talks in Cancun, said in a statement." The panel "has provided insight into how our efforts can be best focused and helps give us direction for future priorities."
The study comes as oil sands production begins to take off again after its recession lull. The resource is an environmental minefield but remains the crown jewel of Canada's $110-billion oil industry, and the industry hopes to double oil sands production in the next decade, to nearly three million barrels a day.
The RSC report preface puts the onus on government and industry to explore implementing the recommendations. Like the Alberta government, the oil industry welcomed the report.
"Any kind of greater scrutiny from science-based organizations like this one is positive for the greater national dialogue on oil sands," said Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The report, while critical of industry at points, is sure to be welcomed by oil sands producers because it all but dismisses many of the commonly held environmental complaints in the region. It notes that scientific data shows air pollution is minimal, water pollution a potential concern but is having no immediate impact, that there's no correlation between oil sands pollution and an elevated cancer rate in Fort Chipewyan, a much publicized community where five cases of a rare cancer left residents worrying they were slowly being poisoned by industrial development upstream.
However, it calls for increased monitoring and more rigorous scientific oversight, suggesting a lack of confidence in the data that led to the assessment of environmental impact.
The oil sands have increasingly become a hot-button topic. This fall included a series of controversies, including a court conviction for a major oil company, a report that showed pollution in a major river (though written by a scientist with an activist streak), and a visit by a Hollywood mogul.
Given the ensuing rhetoric, the Royal Society struck up its seven-member expert panel as "a public service to Canadians," creating the 437-page study over 14 months.
"The stuff that's out there is all advocacy," said Steve Hrudey, the chairman of the RSC's report panel and a professor emeritus of environmental toxicology at the University of Alberta. "We don't have an agenda to say, you know, 'Support oil sands' or 'Oppose oil sands.' We think that an intelligent debate about real issues requires people having access to accurate information."
The report says repeatedly that science must not take a back seat to rhetoric. It laments that final approval of Alberta energy projects rests with politicians, not scientists, and urged an end to such "political interference." It specifically targets a handful of areas for further research, including the state of groundwater, of the Athabasca River and of long-term health and social effects.
It found that Alberta (which controls the resource and should handle most enforcement) and Ottawa (which is meant to oversee major river monitoring and aboriginal issues), both "need to show some leadership" by tightening rules and looking ahead "to a time when an economy based on fossil fuels may no longer be viable."
For Ottawa, it's a case of being asleep at the wheel, Dr. Hrudey said. "They have ample authority under existing legislation to be involved, and there's not much sign that they've been very involved, certainly over the last decade."
In Alberta, it's a case of having too many cooks in the kitchen. Responsibilities and key data are split and juggled among two ministries, an arms-length regulator and an industry-led Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (which itself is under review by three reports, one due Thursday). The RSC recommends making that data easily available from a single source.
It also recommends a more robust environmental impact assessment program, saying the current system is below international standards, and suggests the government collect more money from companies for "reclamation," or returning mined land to its original state. Currently, Albertans are on the hook for a massive unfunded liability.
The RSC hopes the changes are explored.
"You can sense the divide very strongly on issues like this," said William Leiss, a University of Ottawa professor and RSC fellow. "We strive strongly for balance, not for sensationalism. For me, the take-home message of the report is we have very strong failures in our regulatory and oversight system, both at the federal and provincial levels. That needs urgent attention."
The Royal Society of Canada's oil sands report takes aim at a handful of popular misconceptions.
Myth: Regulatory oversight is strong.
Report: Alberta hasn't "kept pace with rapid expansion" and has a confusing process prone to "political interference" and lacking scientific rigour. Ottawa isn't doing any better and needs "to show some leadership."
Myth: The aboriginal community of Fort Chipewyan, which is downstream of oil sands development, has an elevated cancer rate.
Report: "There is no credible evidence to support the commonly repeated media accounts of excess cancer in Fort Chipewyan."
Myth: Oil sands operations are draining the Athabasca River, and polluting what's left.
Report: Current extraction levels are sustainable and there is no "current threat to aquatic ecosystem viability."
Myth: Land is being reclaimed, or returned to normal, after mining.
Report: The province is on the hook for unfunded reclamation liabilities and "no tailings pond has yet been completely reclaimed."
Myth: The oil sands are an environmental catastrophe of international scale.
Report: The claim lacks any "credible quantitative evidence." The James Bay hydro project has destroyed 15 times as much boreal forest as the oil sands; coal power is responsible for 17 per cent of Canadian carbon emissions, more than three times the oil sands' total.
Myth: Environmentally, open-pit mining is the worst form of bitumen extraction.
Report: Open pit is messy, but "in situ," or underground mining produces as much as 20 per cent more greenhouse gas.
Editor's note: The report said there was no correlation between oil sands pollution and an elevated cancer rate in Fort Chipewyan. Unclear information appeared in an earlier online version of this article.