Criticism motivates Royal Society to review oil sands study
By Mike DeSouza
OTTAWA — The lead author of a Royal Society of Canada report about oil sands development in Alberta has agreed to review the 2010 study following criticism it was plagued with errors and overlooked environmental and health impacts of the industry’s operations.
The decision follows the publication Friday of a commentary by Alberta scientist Kevin Timoney that was based on an analysis of a single chapter of the Royal Society report, examining water-related impacts of oil sands development.
“We will be responding by some means to everything he has raised,” said Steve Hrudey, a professor emeritus in analytical and environmental toxicology at the University of Alberta’s faculty of medicine and dentistry, who lead the Royal Society study.
The original assessment has been regularly cited by industry and government officials since it was released in December 2010, to counter claims from downstream communities including First Nations groups that allege pollution from oilsands development is causing health problems and unusually high cancer rates in their population.
But Timoney alleged in the commentary, published in an Iowa-based journal, Environmental Science and Technology, that the Royal Society authors had misreported data, used outdated research and downplayed the potential impacts of potential seepage of contaminants from oilsands tailings ponds in to the environment.
“The RSC report provided a simplistic and incomplete treatment of how industrial activities may impact the aquatic environment,” wrote Timoney, who has studied the oilsands region for decades and specializes in studying the ecology of wetlands, in the commentary.
The commentary also questioned the Royal Society’s dismissal of public health concerns from downstream communities, suggesting that the 2010 analysis gave a “superficial treatment of the data.”
“The report’s skepticism about contamination was not based on a thorough or careful analysis,” said Timoney’s commentary.
Hrudey acknowledged some corrections could be made to the Royal Society report following a review.
“Given that we took 14 months, start to finish, to produce our report and Dr. Timoney has had 14 months since December 15 2010 to review 1 chapter (out of 11 in our report), it would not be surprising if he were able to find something that should be corrected,” Hrudey said. “If we do, it will be corrected.”
Recently released secret documents from the highest levels of the federal government have warned environmental damage from industry could be permanent, posing a “financial risk” to the province of Alberta.
The federal government has also indicated it plans to move forward this year with draft climate change regulations that would address the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions that are rising faster than any other sector in the Canadian economy. But successive governments and environment ministers have repeatedly pledged to deliver regulations over the past decade, without implementing a concrete plan.
While Timoney suggested the Royal Society authors had overlooked potential mistakes because it rushed to finish the report, Hrudey also confirmed that time constraints and the sheer volume of evidence and data were obstacles in conducting their assessment.
“We did include some information received as late as December 2010, but we made no claims, nor could we reasonably be expected to have obtained everything that was published in 2010,” Hrudey said. “One third of the scientific citations Dr. Timoney cites in his criticism of our report are 2010 publications.”
The Royal Society report also highlighted the lack of information about potential impacts of oilsands development, prompting the federal and Alberta government’s to improve monitoring programs through a new plan that is estimated to cost about $50-million per year.