Inconsistent science has marred the credibility of dozens of past environmental impact studies of the Alberta tar sands/oil sands, according to a new assessment published in the journal Environmental Reviews.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said study author and University of British Columbia biology professor Adam Ford. “You would have to go out of your way to make it this bad. It’s just a symptom of the state of the industry, and it’s definitely a signal that we can do better.”
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After reviewing 30 separate environmental assessments conducted between 2004 and 2017, “Ford found each study considered different factors in different ways. Few independently checked their conclusions,” The Canadian Press reports, in a story carried by both CBC and CTV News. “And those who did were notably less confident about the industry’s ability to restore what it had disturbed.”
The impact studies are mandatory before companies can build new tar sands/oil sands projects. They “generally take representative species and consider, based on expert opinion, how development would affect different aspects of their habitat,” CP explains. But thanks to inconsistencies across those reports, “the resulting tens of thousands of pages piled in the offices of the Alberta Energy Regulator reveal little about the overall health of one of the most heavily industrialized landscapes in Canada.”
Across the series, Ford found that researchers looked at 35 different species. Moose were the only species to appear in all 30, and only 10 showed up in more than half of them.
“You would think that projects that are that close together, that are similar in nature, would have a more common set of shared species,” he told CP’s Bob Weber.
At least as important, the studies used 316 different mathematical models to measure the habitat impacts of industrial development—and their results differed 82% of the time, Ford found. “Only 33 of the models were independently verified by field data or separate statistical methods,” CP states, and “the assessments that used verification were about twice as likely to project serious, lingering environmental impacts.”
“Given the largely inconsistent approaches used to measure and rank ‘habitat,’ we have no basis with which to measure the performance, accuracy, or reliability of most habitat models used in oilsands (assessment),” the paper concludes.
For all that the fossil industry has been complaining about interminably slow regulatory processes, Ford told CP a standardized assessment method for tar sands/oil sands projects would be quicker, cheaper, and more reliable. “What are the species we need to know about? We have experts in Canada who spend their entire lives thinking about these species. Let’s get them involved so we can create robust habitat models, so that we don’t have to revisit everybody’s individual opinion.”
Particularly because “there’s people who live on this land (whose) culture and way of life is tied to those animals. And we’re telling them we’re pretty much making this up.”