Oil sands considered at this year's Ransom Myers Memorial Lecture

David Schindler from the University of Alberta shared his concerns

- October 26, 2011

David Schindler (photo provided)
David Schindler (photo provided)

“Economic saviour or environmental disaster?”

That’s the big question that David Schindler, professor of ecology from the University of Alberta, asked of the Albertan oil sands development in this year’s Random Myers Memorial Lecture, held at Dalhousie earlier this month. The lecture series commemorates Dal Professor Ransom A. Myers, who passed away five years ago.

Holder of a Killam Memorial Chair and a widely-published and internationally recognized scientific author, Dr. Schindler is also the chair of the Board of Directors of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation. His interests are focused on helping aboriginal communities obtain clean drinking water, and his latest research studies the effects of oil sands on Alberta’s Athabasca River.

The law of the land

Dr. Schindler questioned the degree to which the oil sands are a wise investment. He argued that the Canadian government would have to spend $1.2 trillion toward the development of the oil sands in the next 15 years as an investment in mining and clear cutting. The oil sands will require approximately 140 square kilometers of forest—an area equivalent to the size of a U.S. State or a small European country.

What concerns Dr. Schindler most—along with other scientists, academics and Canadian citizens—are the indigenous populations that are being displaced either from clear cutting or from pollution caused by oil sand drilling.

In 1899, the Canadian government signed a treaty with the indigenous communities of Canada stating that the government had no rights to the land in question, and that it would be signed over to the local communities, thereby preventing exploitation. Dr. Schindler argued that major oil mining companies have advanced into regions that violate the terms of the treaty and infringe upon aboriginal rights.

Considering the negatives

Dr. Schindler also addressed the alarming rate of oil sands development which he estimates at 7.5 per cent each year. This speedy development is too fast for monitoring and regulations to keep up with, he said. While it provides a significant increase of new jobs, he argued that the positions are filled by foreign workers, ultimately providing very little, if any, economic benefit for Canadian citizens.

He went on to discuss the dangerous levels of various contaminants (among them, mercury, arsenic and lead) that mining omits into the water. These pollutants have caused the contaminants in local fish to rise to levels unfit for consumption, as well as contributed to a 95 per cent mortality rate in fish embryos and large deformities and tumors in the remaining population. While cancer rates have never been directly connected to air or water pollutants caused by drilling, rare and alarmingly high cancer rates are being examined in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, a community that borders on the Athabasca River.

Dr. Schindler’s lecture was informative yet somber, reminding listeners of the gravity of the oil sands’ environmental consequences. Questions from the audience were primarily concerned with global warming, the indigenous populace and recklessness.

At the end of the presentation, Dr. Schindler was awarded with a painting by a local Halifax artist. The painting, depicting a set of lungs separating into tree branches and leaves, was given as a symbolic reminder for the value of clean natural resources now and for the future.


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