CBC's Tipping Point gives science the short end of the stick

Re: CBC, The Nature of Things: Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands, January 27, 2011
Contributed to The Hill Times
Greg Stringham
Vice President of Oil Sands
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
February 01, 2011

We all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood and its underlying message - walking in the woods is dangerous.

One might argue many children have avoided danger because of fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood. One might also argue the wolf was hunted into extinction in Europe and very nearly in North America because of the way it was mythologized in such stories.

Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands identifies polarized perspectives as part of the reason a balanced national perspective on oil sands is difficult to reach. The movie is correct in this regard, the national dialogue on oil sands is emotional and complex. Unfortunately this movie further mythologizes the oil sands and drives a deeper wedge between science and rhetoric. Fairytales are dangerous.

CBC promotes the movie as a "two-hour visual tour de force, taking viewers inside the David and Goliath struggle playing out within one of the most compelling environmental issues of our time."

The David and Goliath myth drives the story from its outset. There is only one path for the audience and only one conclusion to reach ”the detractors are right and should be vindicated, the perpetrator slain.

But science has a sobering effect on popular myth. When early naturalists and scientists started gathering real data and came to understand wolf behaviour from a scientific perspective they concluded the wolf was not a threat to humans and should be protected and admired.

CAPP recognizes it might be a bit of a leap for anti-fossil fuel activists to move from vilifying to admiring industry, but it shouldn't be beyond the realm of possibility to expect serious people to consider serious science.

Considering the presumed scientific focus of Suzuki's The Nature of Things, it comes as a surprise this movie chooses to ignore science in favour of emotive rhetoric.

For instance, the filmmakers chose speeches from activists over scientific reflection from one of Canada's most venerable scientific authorities, the Royal Society of Canada's ”Academy of Sciences (RSC). Why? Because the findings don't support the David and Goliath myth.

The RSC is independent of industry, governments, activists and the CBC. An expert panel of RSC scientists accepted a mandate from the public to review and assess all available scientific evidence, identify knowledge gaps and provide Canadians with a scientific perspective pertaining to polarized views on oil sands.

Here are quotations of some key findings from the RSC report:

Impacts of oil sands contaminants on downstream residents: There is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands reaching Fort Chipweyan at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates. More monitoring focused on human contaminant exposures is needed to address First Nation's and community concerns

Impacts on regional water supply: Current industrial water use demands do not threaten the viability of the Athabasca River system if the Water Management Framework developed to protect in-stream, ecosystem flow needs is fully implemented and enforced.

Impacts on regional water quality and groundwater quality: Current evidence on water quality impacts on the Athabasca River system suggests that oil sands development activities are not a current threat to aquatic ecosystem viability.

The full RSC report can be found here
(rsc.ca | Dec, 2010)

The RSC report also highlighted valid concerns about current monitoring practices and regional cumulative impact assessments. As an industry, we welcome science, we believe what's needed is more solid data on this and other environmental issues to build confidence among Canadians that this resource is being developed responsibly and safely.

Industry consistently supports more scientific study on health issues in Fort Chipewyan, as we have supported more objective science-based reporting on all oil sands environmental issues. The Government of Alberta produced a letter of intent that outlines a "framework for dialogue and collaborative action" in the region. The framework was signed in April 2010 by Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, Minister of Aboriginal Relations Len Webber, Mikisew Cree Chief Roxanne Marcel and Métis Local 125 president Fred Fraser. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam has refused to sign.

We have a philosophy of continual operational and environmental performance improvement, which extends naturally to monitoring systems. A world-class monitoring system is good for everybody. We support the evolution of the monitoring system, taking what science has already been applied and making it better. We recognize there are areas where we need to further improve our performance and we will. We have made progress, with billions of dollars being spent this year on improving environmental performance on air, land and water issues.

Sound science will help us demonstrate our progress to Albertans and Canadians and provide facts to anchor responsible oil sands development.

It's a pity the CBC doesn't let science get in the way of a really good story.