Are Alberta's Oil Sands "Safe?"

That all depends on what you mean by "safe." If by "safe" you mean a risk determination made by credible science, well then, no, Alberta's oil sands are not "safe," because the science that could bolster such a claim doesn't exist.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

The Canadian and Albertan governments and oil sands industry proponents like to claim that the oil sands are a "safe and secure" supply of oil. Unfortunately, neither the government, nor industry, has invested in the credible science monitoring required to make such a claim. In fact, it appears they've done the exact opposite, hiding scientific peer review as far back as 2004 that showed serious blind spots in the region's only water monitoring program.

In today's Globe and Mail, Josh Wingrove reports on how Alberta's energy regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board, approved Alberta's ninth open-pit oil sands mine just last week based on "data" from the widely criticized Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), an industry-led body "...that has been the subject of extensive, pointed criticism from three separate reports over the past two months."

Writing in a Tyee column earlier this week, award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk delves into the latest peer review report for the RAMP program - released just four days after RAMP data was used to justify the mine approval decision. Apparently RAMP believes that a new mine would “have no significant adverse environmental effect on water quality,” not surprising given the monitoring program's massive blind spots.

As highlighted by Nikiforuk, the 2010 peer-reviewing scientists' own words in assessing RAMP are damning. Here are just a couple of gems that should give pause for concern to those who claim that Alberta's oil sands are "safe."

Re: Fish Toxicology:

"John Post, a respected fish biologist at the University of Calgary, found that the fish monitoring program was well, fishy: 'It is likely the current monitoring program is biased towards concluding no effect, even if one is present.'

Winnipeg-based fish biologist William Franzin also found that RAMP wasn't even doing the proper science 'that would be effective in identifying toxicology or stress in fish samples collected.'"

Re: Monitoring Acid Rain:

"Shaun Watmough at Trent University found RAMP's ability to monitor acid rain severely acidic. 'The sampling design is clearly not a representative survey of the lakes and the data cannot be used to assess the potential impact of acid deposition on a regional basis.'"

Re: Monitoring Malfunctions:

"In one year alone, one or more water monitoring stations reported a total of 296 days of lost data. 'The level of malfunction is unacceptable for a program of this magnitude... if you can mine then you can measure.'"

On their own, these findings are disconcerting, but when they are considered as part of a larger pattern of deception, they're enough to significantly erode confidence in industry and government claims that Canada's oil sands are "safe."

The oil sands industry and Canadian regulators are experts at seeing no evil and hearing no evil, a strategy that might make short term economic sense, but that in the long term doesn't give much confidence to those who are facing escalated cancer rates downstream from oil sands operations, or those American decision makers and residents who are being asked to approve pipelines carrying "safe and secure" oil that would cross their sources of drinking water or salmon bearing streams.

Are Alberta's oil sands "safe?" The correct answer to that question is that industry and government don't know, and frankly, their actions suggest that they don't care.