One of Canada’s Leading Environmental Scientists speaks at UNBSJ: The Oil Sands Project

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Here in N.B., one would expect to find little interest in northern Alberta’s tar sands region. However, out of sight is not out of mind in this case, as UNBSJ’s Hazen Hall lecture theatre was nearly filled to capacity, awaiting an oil sands lecture by David Schindler, PhD, on Nov. 15.

New Brunswick’s on-going debate over hydrofracking (an extraction process for natural gas) may be partly responsible for the renewed interest and aside from several technical issues; Thursday night’s event was well received.

David Schindler, a professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, is one of Canada’s leading Environmental Scientists; receiving the first Stockholm Water Prize. The lecture was focused around a crucial need for an independent agency to implement an improved monitoring program for the Athabasca River, in the heart of the Oil Sands Project.

Beginning with a harsh critique of current and past oversight failures, Schindler levied serious complaints against Alberta’s provincial government, the Federal government, and the oil companies themselves; claiming they’ve grossly misrepresented the collected data to the general public.

Schindler informed his audience that: “Canadians should be angry about the deceit being done since the 1970s. Data from pre-project is being ignored. Lots of shifting baselines we’re choosing to ignore because they’re incontinent.”

His studies have shown that the equipment being used by the government is out of date and therefore, fails to register accurate levels of toxins. These lower results have been misleading the public about the safety of the project. Using proper equipment, Schindler and his colleagues have found significantly higher amounts of mercury, lead and arsenic in the soil and water sources within 50 km of the oil sands region.

The lecture was not all doom and gloom. Due to the published findings, industry officials have agreed to upgrade the equipment being used to monitor hazardous materials in the area. Schindler also offered several solutions on how to improve the outlook of the Oil Sands Project.

“Government should be consulting with aboriginal communities in the area and also [setting] aside large reserves for wildlife.” Reclamation efforts were singled out as being vitally important to the long-term health of the region.

Once the oil is extracted from a specific zone, citizens need to pressure our government (and the companies responsible) to ensure that the land is returned to pre-project conditions, allowing nature to reclaim the area.

The ethical and environmental implications of the Oil Sands Project are remarkably complicated and cannot be fully understood in this brief summary of Schindler’s lecture. The future of the Oil Sands Project should be considered hugely important since the choices made in Alberta will have widespread implications for all Canadians.

For additional information, Schindler recommended a 90-minute documentary produced by the CBC, which can be found at www.cbc.ca/documentaries/natureofthings/2011/tippingpoint.