Moral ­sediments [Oil sands] – by Peter Foster (National Post – January 29, 2013)

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Alarmists exaggerate oil sands lake study

The global environmental movement has used Alberta’s oil sands as a fundraising poster demon for climate activism. That activism continues to focus on stopping the proposed Keystone XL pipeline — on which U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to decide within the next few months — but the villain in this morality play remains the oil sands themselves.

Whatever the state of “the science,” even greatly expanded oil sands development could have no observable impact on the global climate. However, their possible local effects require sound and objective study. The problem is that some of the leading researchers are themselves climate alarmists and political activists.

A recent example of how ideology may be corrupting science — and how eagerly a crusading media regurgitates alarmism — came with the release of a study of the impact of emissions from the oil sands on nearby lakes. The study appeared three weeks ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Most of its authors were from Environment Canada, but its chief promoter was Queen’s University professor John Smol, Canada Research Chair on Environmental Change.

Queen’s issued a press release on the paper with the headline “Oil sands study shows negative impact on lake systems.” In fact, the study — which analyzed sediments in lakes close to the oil sands for deposition of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — didn’t show any such thing. Moreover, the release was issued without being vetted by Environment Minister Peter Kent’s office. Perhaps Prof. Smol was eager to avoid what he has called the Harper government’s “tongue police.”

The study, by going back in time through core samples of lake beds, did indeed demonstrate that PAH levels had increased, and that the increase was linked to bitumen production rather than natural sources, such as forest fires. However, levels were similar to those in other remote lakes, with the exception of one lake — “NE20” — which was very close to two oil sands plants, where the government’s interim standards (the lowest level of concern for toxicity) had been exceeded since the 1980s. However, they were still well below the levels at which there was a chance of “probable” environmental harm.

Certainly, the issue of whether further depositions might cause harm requires examination, but the study in fact demonstrated little to justify Prof. Smol’s assertion in the Queen’s press release that “Combined with the effects of climate change and other environmental stressors to aquatic ecosystems, these results are worrying.”

Prof. Smol then proceeded in media interviews to talk up the study and even misrepresent its conclusions. He suggested that “back of the envelope” calculations pointed to problems with oil sands expansion. “We might well be close to significantly higher levels and more dangerous levels very quickly,” he said.

In fact, NE20 was the only lake in which sediment levels might reach guidelines for “possible” harmful environmental effects, but that would depend on emissions and depositions ramping up in tandem with oil sands expansion, and ignored the likelihood of further scrubbing of emissions.

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