Once upon a time, in the beautiful land of Alberta there were magical machines that could turn sand into oil, that drew the toxins from the land and left the air and water clean and clear. It sounds like a fairy tale, but this is more or less what politicians like Premier Alison Redford and Environment Minister Joe Oliver are selling on their trips to Washington, according to scientist David Schindler.
The founder and former director of the recently endangered Ontario Experimental Lakes Area was the keynote speaker at Carleton University’s Community Engagement Celebration on Friday. In a speech focusing on the environmental “propaganda war” Canada is facing, he said that believing in clean tar sands development is akin to believing in “magic fairies.”
“Why are people allowed to lie to the public like this? I just don’t understand this. We have to challenge them,” he said. “Obviously the people who used to challenge them, the civil servants, are no longer allowed to.
“If you got towns around the world to nominate the village idiot from every town and flew them over the oilsands, and asked them: ‘Yes or no, is this a significant impact?’ I think I know what the answer would be.”
Schindler spared no words in his assessment of how this might affect our reputation down beyond our borders. “It gives you an indication of how stupid this must seem to people in Washington. They must think we’ve all just fallen off a turnip truck … We’ve had premiers and prime ministers and ministers of the environment spouting this stuff.”
Now the Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, Schindler teaches limnology, the philosophy, sociology and politics of science/science and public policy in Canada, and environmental decision making. He became the centre of a controversy in 2010 when he and a team of researchers set out to test the effects of the tar sands on the surrounding environment. They found contamination in the Athabasca River watershed from both airborne and waterborne sources.
A federal commission set out the check the findings and later confirmed that it was even worse than they had thought. They observed contaminants up to 100 km away, representing a footprint “four times bigger” than even Schindler’s team observed.
Given the seriousness of these verified findings, its not surprising that Schindler might be a little insulted by claims like those made by Premier Redford during her recent speech to the Brookings Institution that tailing ponds are almost a thing of the past.
Over the phone from his office at the University of Alberta, Schindler likens the situation to the old tale, the Emperor’s New Clothes. “Emperor Oil Sands has no clothes,” he says.
He points to politicians’ continued touting of Alberta’s excellent environmental monitoring systems as one of the most egregious examples. “We had no fewer than six expert panels say the monitoring until two years ago was substandard,” he says. “And anyone with any common sense knows you can't take two years of good monitoring and forecast to find out what changes there have been in the environment.”
“It annoys me that we have politicians going down spouting these things that make Canadians look like a bunch of absolute idiots,” he says.
Schindler acknowledges that in this day and age, not all scientists can be as candid as he is about environmental issues. During his 25 years as a public servant, he saw government scientists become progressively more silenced.
“We're supposed to listen to these politicians and accountants tell us what's happening with fisheries and the environment,” he says. “They don't know any more about the subject than the average ditch digger in Canada, so I don't know why Canadians would trust what they say, especially when it's well-known that what they're saying is politically motivated.”
He praises his home institution for its support of his right to speak out on issues like this. “Their view is if you have the science to back up what you say, you should be allowed to say it,” he said.
However, he fears that the current wave of massive spending cuts at Alberta post-secondary institutions might cripple this kind of science in the future. “I worry about a general decline in quality of the science that goes on here,” he says. “I see people getting very discouraged about the prospect. I notice a drying up of pools of people who would normally be applying to graduate school because the feeling is there won't be jobs for us.
“They don't seem to realise that, while they view these things in short term, the results are not short term. Scientists aren't like cab drivers or bulldozer operators. You don't have a two-month short course and have them put back as many as you need.”
He finds it particularly discouraging that the provincial government continues to spend money on "propogandizing the oil sands" even as they cut funding for post-secondary institutions and medical doctors. "This is not sending a very good message about this country," he says.