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Greens Jump the Gun on Oil Sands Pollution

A study released yesterday found that the development of the Canadian oil sands has increased the level of carcinogens in nearby lakes beyond natural levels. Greens everywhere are likely choking on their own outrage, and at first glance they appear to have cause. The New York Times reports:

Layers of the sediment were tested for deposits of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, groups of chemicals associated with oil that in many cases have been found to cause cancer in humans after long-term exposure. . . .

[T]he levels of those deposits have been steadily rising since large-scale oil sands production began in 1978. Samples from one test site, the paper said, now show 2.5 to 23 times more PAHs in current sediment than in layers dating back to around 1960.

“Now we have the smoking gun,” [the paper’s lead author] Professor Smol said.

Carcinogens increasing by a factor of 23 is an alarming datapoint, but the fact that there is a range as large as 2.5 to 23 percent at one test site should set off some alarm bells about the accuracy of this finding. And it looks even worse in context:

Adam Sweet, a spokesman for Peter Kent, Canada’s environment minister, emphasized in an e-mail that with the exception of one lake very close to the oil sands, the levels of contaminants measured by the researchers “did not exceed Canadian guidelines and were low compared to urban areas.”

So: while levels of dangerous chemicals increased, the waters surrounding the oil sands areas were cleaner than most urban water sources in Canada and met water quality standards. If this is a “smoking gun”, we aren’t impressed.

This doesn’t mean Canada should ignore the environmental hazards—far from it. As exploitation of these reserves increases, the dangers will no doubt grow. However, managed carefully and appropriately, the environmental damage can be limited. Ultimately, all risks and costs must be weighed—but not just the ones that suit our preconceived notions. Yes, developing U.S. and Canadian shale oil sites will impose risks and costs, but failing to develop them will also impose risks and costs—including the risk that war in unstable countries will disrupt the energy supplies the world desperately needs.

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