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Prestigious journal calls oil sands an ‘environmentalist’s nightmare’

The prestigious scientific journal Nature is urging scientists to speak out against the environmental impacts of Alberta’s oil sands.

“It would be unrealistic to expect that we could harvest fossil fuels or minerals without an effect on the environment,” reads an editorial in this week’s issue. “But the fast development of the tar sands, combined with weak regulation and a lack of effective watchdogs, have made them an environmentalist’s nightmare.”

Since the 1990s, greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands extraction have declined 30 percent per barrel, the journal notes. And ongoing University of Alberta research to reduce water impacts is a positive step, it reads.

On the surface, Nature’s editorial argues, Alberta government regulations appear to be tough on industry. Large companies have to pay $15 per tonne on each tonne of carbon they emit over a certain limit and mined lands and tailings ponds must legally be reclaimed.

“But many of these rules are weaker than they seem,” the editorial argues.

Overall emissions, it points out, are set to "go through the roof.” And only one six-hundredth of all mined land has been officially reclaimed, it reads.

“Canada’s tar sands, like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are a warning sign of things to come. Future sources of fossil fuels will only get dirtier and riskier,” reads the Nature editorial.

It concludes: “Scientists can make a difference, not, as some critics allege, by playing politics, but by applying their expertise as concerned citizens.”

University of Alberta water expert David Schindler also authors a story in this week’s Nature. His report on oil sands water pollution, coupled with images of deformed fish, helped convince Alberta and federal governments to appoint scientific review panels last month.

Geoff Dembicki reports for the Tyee.

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