A matter of fact or opinion?

Sometimes an opinion makes statements so over-the-top I can not hold my tongue (or fingers, as the case may be).

Sometimes an opinion makes statements so over-the-top I can not hold my tongue (or fingers, as the case may be).

With all due respect to my colleague at Black Press, Tom Fletcher, I found this the case with his latest B.C. Views column condemning the advocacy of Neil Young.

While the goal may have been to draw attention to the bias of Young’s campaign (which is in support of the Fort Chipewyan First Nation), he really only drew attention to his own bias by being highly selective with his own facts.

So I decided if I were to print his opinion, I would have to print my own as well, along with some research as to where I get these “fantasy facts” as Fletcher calls some of them in his piece.

First off, I just want to clarify a couple things I think set the column off on a bit of a wrong foot.

First of all, Fletcher immediately attacks Young’s descriptions of the oil sands extraction as looking like a war zone (Hiroshima) and on the oil sands being on their way to looking like the moon as false statements.

Well now it’s a stretch to say these statements are blatantly false, because of course they are opinions, so while perhaps it is not Fletcher’s opinion the extractions and resultant denuded landscape looks like a war zone (and granted, Hiroshima involved a different type of damage) or the moon. But exactly what they look like is up for debate, and it is hard to describe a landscape so barren of topsoil and vegetation. It’s certainly not pretty, unless you think a barren area larger than Rhode Island with nothing but tailings ponds and mineral soil is your idea of beautiful.

But this is really semantics, and a bit dramatic on Fletcher’s part, with some exclamation points thrown in for extra sensationalism.

Anyone who read and looked at the Canadian Geographic cover story of June 2008 (1), will agree the images are startling. While Young used a comparison some found offensive, I challenge Fletcher to find a description more accurate. But then I’m pretty sure Young could have called it anything and it would have been immediately labelled as “false” and attacked by oil sands supporters even though in reality, an opinion is an opinion, and pretty it up all you want, the oil sands development is not attractive.

As for the issue Young brought up regarding reclamation, well, once again, I have to disagree with Fletcher’s characterization of this as a false statement.

Reclamation is minima and there are numerous scientific studies cited throughout the literature on the oil sands saying exactly that (2). As of 2008, only 0.2 per cent (not even half a per cent, how’s that for worthy of exclamation!) of the previously mined area had been certified by regulators as “reclaimed” and there were not clear standards requiring a return to a pre-disturbance boreal ecosystem (3). Even after the reclamation standards and assessment process were redone by the Alberta government in 2009, the area actually certified as reclaimed is still very minimal, according to the government’s own graphs (4).

The Alberta government has said it is continuing to work on updated regulations and reporting to address some of the issues around reclamation, but it is not yet clear whether this is meaningful change or optics, as creating more categories to put the mines in once they are mined out, does not necessarily mean they will ever attain the lofty goal of productive and healthy ecosystems.

The tailings ponds do not yet seem to be addressed in terms of rehabilitation.

There is not one single citation I could find of a tailings pond achieving anywhere close to a reclaimed state. The ponds, which are a mixture of the leftover silt-water slurry and unrecoverable hydrocarbons are left to settle out, and it is unclear whether the waste water will eventually be recoverable or releasable back into a watershed system. Settling out of the suspended sediments is estimated at taking anywhere from a few decades to 125-150 years, with the different time frames depending the thickness of the sediment, tailings management and more (5).

As for the “tar sands oil is going to China and that’s why their air is so bad” statement Fletcher attributes to Young, well this is an oversimplification (whether you attribute the oversimplification to Young or Fletcher is up to you).

Yes, Young pointed out we want to send the oil to China, or to be more correct, Asia in general, which obviously is being worked on with the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline Project. We are already sending some to Asia as it is, though not as much or as directly as Northern Gateway would allow.

But the link between increasing use of fossil fuels in countries with far lower emissions standards such as China is a reality Fletcher chooses not to acknowledge.

I would argue Young has a point in attempting to draw attention to the bigger issues at play globally, and our part in contributing to the problem.

Increased use of lower-quality fuels is contributing to the problem, whether Fletcher and other naysayers want to admit it or not. While China may just go buy oil from other places, those choices are largely dictated by economics, so were we investing in greener technologies which then became less expensive then the ones based on fossil fuels, well, this would speed up the time frame in which China would be buying those and we would instead be contributing to a solution, not a problem.

Look at the transformation Germany has undergone in the past decade by focussing on investing in greener technologies and energy sources. Sure, our economy is not based on the same things Germany’s is, but why could Canada not begin looking forward instead of just continuing to rely on volatile resource industries?

Or of course we could choose to refine it to higher standards in Canada before exporting it.

But I digress. Back to Mr. Young and Mr. Fletcher (and the myriad of other columnists who used oversimplification to dismiss Young’s argument against continued headlong, unrestrained development of the oil sands.

The best part is where Fletcher mentions a past citation by Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of a study by a local physician.

Dr. John O’Connor spent years battling the massive public relations machine of the oil companies and the Alberta governments while he attempted to have the government study what he thought were the higher than normal incidents of very rare cancers in the Fort Chipewyan First Nation community, downstream of the oil sands tailings ponds, along the Athabasca River. A statistical analysis by the Alberta government did not find a conclusive link, this is true.

Health Canada physicians did file complaints against O’Connor, however he was cleared of all of them.

But the very report by a Royal Society of Canada expert panel in 2010 which Fletcher cites to dismiss cancer claims also states: “More monitoring focussed on human contaminant exposure is needed to address First Nation and community concerns.”

The report says there is currently no credible evidence of a definitive cancer link, but there are really not much in the way of proper scientific studies period.

The very same study also says reclamation is not keeping pace with disturbance.

Fletcher seems to summarily dismiss Young’s criticisms of the oil sands simply because he is a celebrity, and yes, as a celebrity, probably Young is presenting the argument in a manner which oversimplifies the situation.

However, let’s not bury our heads so firmly in the oil sands we can not reasonably discuss the issues at hand without doing the very things Fletcher accuses Young of doing: using misinformation to get his point across.

The oil sands contamination may or may not be the source of the problem for those suffering from rare cancers in Fort Chipewyan, but without proper long-term study, we won’t really know. Small population sizes and poor monitoring mean questions still remain.

And does it not seem a little hypocritical Fletcher summarily dismisses the public relations campaigns opposing the oil sands’ possible environmental and First Nations rights implications as the “American enviro-assault” when he has no issue with the billion-dollar foreign oil companies profiting from the oil sands running their own pro-oil sands campaigns saying the exact opposite?

While Young may be arguing too far from one side, it seems so is Mr. Fletcher.

What is truly needed is conversation on more sustainable oil sands development and ways we could plan to develop more strategically for longer-term benefits and less environmental destruction.

But then, this is just my opinion, whether Mr. Fletcher wants to call it “false” or not.


1) Scar Sands; Curtis Gillespie; Canadian Geographic Magazine; June 2008

2) Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon; Rebecca C. Rooney, Suzanne E. Bayley, and David W. Schindler; University of Alberta Faculty of Science News.

3) Fact or Fiction: Oil Sand Reclamation; Jennifer Grant, Simon Dyer, Dan Woynillowicz.

4) Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Developmen website; http://environment.alberta.ca/02863.html

5) Prediction of Sedimentation and Consolidation of Fine Tails, W.F. Eckert et al.,  AIChE Journal.