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COSIA is the latest oil sands initiative to enter a now-crowded field
Last week, 12 leading oil sands producers came out of the gate at a big ceremony in Calgary, apologizin’ hard. The Dirty Dozen (as they want, under no circumstances, to be known) were announcing the formation of yet another environmental initiative, the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, COSIA. Steve Williams, president and CEO-designate of oil sands pioneer Suncor, expressed a “genuine desire to do better.” Than what? Sure, the oil sands are big, but where are objective measures of their impact? Indeed, are objective measures even possible? Everybody knows that a flock of ducks died four years ago at Syncrude due to failure of a warning system, but more birds are mangled by wind farms every few minutes.
Nobody denies that the oil sands have potential problems with pollution and tailings ponds, but the new organization, which is headed by Dan Wicklum, a well-regarded former CFL linebacker, aquatic ecologist, and Environment Canada bureaucrat, will also look at greenhouse gas emissions. According to Mr. Wicklum, “COSIA is a science organization, run by scientists for scientists.” So will COSIA address the science of climate change? Not on your life.
Mr. Wicklum was also quoted as saying “We don’t see COSIA playing a role in a flashy media campaign, we want to stick to our knitting, which is accelerate the pace of improvement around environmental performance.” Why then did the industry bother to announce COSIA with such fanfare? Did one of their PR geniuses persuade them that large gatherings of CEOs give people the warm and fuzzies, rather than conjuring memories of parliamentary or congressional hearings into mass malfeasance?
One has no reason to doubt the good intentions behind the new body, but what exactly is COSIA’s role in a field of monitoring and best-practicing that is beginning to look as overcrowded as it is ineffectual, at least in persuading the public that it is doing a good job?
It is educational to remember just where the recent spate of beefed-up oil sands environmental oversight originated. While the drumbeat of turgid decrial of “dirty oil” is constant from radically irresponsible green NGOs, COSIA and many other new initiatives can be traced back to a 2010 study by University of Alberta environmental scientist David Schindler. That study was reported worldwide as indicating dangerous concentrations of toxic chemicals in the Athabasca region, thus undermining the conclusions of the existing multi-stakeholder overseer, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, RAMP (which still soldiers on).
Dr. Schindler’s recitation of scary chemicals fitted nicely with a claims by environmental groups that the oil sands were poisoning the inhabitants of Fort Chipewyan, a downstream community where elevated levels of certain types of cancers had been reported.
Dr. Schindler, it should be noted, is not merely a scientist, he is also an activist, whose characterization of the oil sands as a “sacrifice zone the size of Greece” suggests something less than pure objectivity. In fact, his report’s most noteworthy conclusion, buried near the end, was that “priority pollutants” in the Athabasca River “did not exceed drinking water guidelines.” The Schindler study was nevertheless treated by environmental activists as a bombshell, a message dutifully carried by much of the media and featured in a CBC documentary, Tipping Point.
For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post website: http://opinion.financialpost.com/2012/03/14/peter-foster-the-not-so-dirty-dozen/