Alberta Politics

oil sands toxin-levels report stirs the pot.

A recent peer-reviewed study from researchers including University of Alberta Professor David Schindler has raised some serious questions about the level of oil sands caused toxins in the Athabasca River and the regime that is supposed to monitor these toxin levels. Speaking to the media, Dr. Schindler offered some strong words against claims by the government and industry that the toxin levels are natural.

Environment Minister Rob Renner responded by telling reporters that his scientists have told him that the amount of compounds detected in the Athabasca River are “not a concern and are of insignificant levels.” Liberal leader David Swann and NDP MLA Rachel Notley jumped on the opportunity and offered their support for Dr. Schindler’s report. Wildrose Alliance MLAs have remained suspiciously silent on this important environmental debate.

The Stand with Fort Chipewyan group reminded Albertans that this is not the first time the toxins issue has been raised:

“When Fort Chipewyan residents demanded the government look into whether oilsands activity was contributing to the community’s high cancer rates, they were denied. They were denied because the government’s monitoring system — R.A.M.P. — indicated that there was no impact.”

And 48 hours after the report became public, Premier Ed Stelmach called for a probe:

“We’ll have the scientists sit down and compare the data. Some of the measurements, I couldn’t explain to you, but let it be discussed scientist to scientist.”

Considering that the provincial government’s current strategy to clean up the oil sands appears to revolve largely on public relations campaigns, it may take much more than simple reassurances from the Premier’s “top men” to resolve this issue:

7 replies on “oil sands toxin-levels report stirs the pot.”

Dave, you said, “Wildrose Alliance MLAs have remained suspiciously silent….”

Nothing suspicious about it. It’s very clear that their “alliance” is one that includes big oil interests.

What will we ever do, if we conclude extracting bitumen from the oil sands turns out to be killing people and destroying our environment?

That’s a pretty big question to be silent about. The longer the Wildrose silence continues, the more obvious become the links between them and big oil interests.

Now we need to know who are the scientists (and how did they come about their data) who are advising Rob Renner and Jim Prentice. Was it peer-reviewed and does it stand up to independent scientific scrutiny.

Don’t forget who Alberta Environment’s top men are:

“A scientist who works for the Alberta government has apologized to two scientists for calling their research “a lie.”

Dr. Preston McEachern, an environmental effects biologist who works for the government of Alberta, issued a letter of apology and retraction to Kevin Timoney, a researcher with Treeline Ecological Research, and Peter Lee, executive director with Global Forest Watch Canada.”

Read more:

It may be that Alberta Environment’s position that all research that refutes their claims are lies….they just have to be more subtle about stating that….

A sit down isn’t what’s needed. What’s needed is for the government scientists to publish their work in a peer reviewed journal, otherwise it’s not science.

I hate when people who likely don’t have science backgrounds (and even more so those that do) act like peer review is the be all and end all to good science.

Peer review often leads to consensus thinking, whether the original “science” was based on solid data or wishful thinking. For those interested in reading about how peer review has solidified false “facts” into common knowledge and thus contributed to bad public policy, pick up “Good Calories, Bad Calories” by Gary Taubes. The underlying example in that book is the 1950s hypothesis that dietary fat is the source of heart disease, diabetes, and other disorders. Despite the fact that experimental evidence did not support the hypothesis, peer review was a key mechanism used to enshrine this false fact in the minds of others.

Science requires constant skepticism. Peer review, while having useful applications, tends to marginalize skeptics… to the detriment of good science.

After what Neal said I have to remind myself that even this suspicious-sounding “consensus” can still point to the right answer. So I don’t have a big problem with peer review.

But maybe peer review by itself is not the only way to question a method of collecting and interpreting data. Today we’ve got forums, wikis, argument mapping…

I would like to hear what people think might help in those rare cases where the consensus might actually be completely out to lunch?

Pardon but peer review and publication are the basis of skepticism and foundational principles of modern science. Yes ideas can become entrenched and take awhile to overturn but without public data that can’t happen at all.

You can cherry pick examples where the system has not worked well all you want but it won’t change the fact that the advancement of science has been driven by publication and review. In fact the reason these issues get corrected so someone can write a book about it is that studies are published and can be reviewed.

It’s also important to distinguish between the formal process of peer review as exercised by the science journals and science community, and the general principle of peer review. The general principle is that when making scientific claims the data and methodology should be available for review.

In the current case the scientific community has little to no ability to evaluate the government’s contentions because neither the data nor the research methodology is available for review. Simply having the government and industry scientists meet with Dr. Schindler without opening up the data is not going to change that.

Finally I’ll note that the the government contention that they need three years to put together their own study for publication would show that even they don’t feel their 12 years of data collection is worth much. At the very least they don’t feel it would withstand scrutiny.

Oh, and it also gives them another three years to do nothing about rectifying the situation.

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