Inconvenient truth of oil pollution

Tom Fletcher's column contests the environmental impact of the oil sands.

VICTORIA – A study of six northern Alberta lakes conducted by Environment Canada and other scientists was published last week, generating headlines around the world.

“Oil sands toxins ‘accumulate in freshwater systems,’” the BBC announced. The headline in The New York Times declared: “Oil sands industry in Canada tied to higher carcinogen level.”

The study was reported with similar alarm across Canada. It looked at levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in lakebed sediment, and found levels measurably higher than natural sources since oil sands extraction began 50 years ago.

Most news reports I saw made little or no effort to put this information into context, in terms of the actual risk to humans, fish and other organisms. Some quoted people they knew would scream bloody murder, because as we in the media are taught, conflict and fear attract an audience.

As expected, U.S. environmental groups and their Canadian branch offices ramped up the rhetoric to battle their favourite villain.

At least one major Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail, did a responsible job. Its report on the study stated “PAH pollution level remains low – on par, at worst, with an urban lake – but is rising.”

In fact, five of six lakes tested were far below average contamination of urban lakes. PAH fallout is a daily constant of urban life, from vehicles, industry, and particularly where coal is burned for electricity.

To be clear, there are dozens of different forms of PAH. Some have been shown to increase cancer risk, and some have been linked to (but not proven to cause) infertility, immune disorders and fish mutations.

So when you drive your kids to school, stand at the bus stop, or drink a glass of water from Coquitlam Lake or any urban reservoir, you are exposed to PAH pollution from human and natural sources. The risk from this is an ongoing focus of research, but this study confirms one thing: your exposure is likely greater in any urban area than it is downwind of the Alberta oil sands.

I argued this point with B.C.’s celebrity environmentalist Tzeporah Berman, who has shuttled back and forth from ForestEthics to Greenpeace in recent years. She took to her Facebook page to publicize a dramatic call to action from 350.org, one of the most strident climate change advocacy groups in the U.S., selectively using a quote and picture from The New York Times.

Our debate turned to greenhouse gas emissions. I argued that this PAH study mirrors the true picture of carbon dioxide emissions, which is that nearly 70 per cent of CO2 from all petroleum comes when you burn the final product in engines and furnaces. In B.C., which doesn’t burn coal for electricity, fully 40 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation. Other sources include home heating and industry.

Berman insisted I was wrong, and claimed 70 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gases come from “heavy industry.” I asked for her source. No response.

A 2010 report by a Royal Society of Canada expert panel calculated that 27 per cent of our country’s fossil fuel emissions come from transportation. Another 16 per cent is from fuels burned for electricity. Five per cent is from oil sands operations. Berman’s figure is conveniently untrue.

Greenpeace and the rest of the environmental scare industry want you to believe that stopping Alberta’s oil sands and pipelines would save the planet. Also wrong. It would drive oil demand from the U.S., Venezuela’s oil sands and elsewhere, with little net effect on the climate or pollution.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

 

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