Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach

Don’t expect a study released yesterday that shows water in the Athabasca River is being polluted by tar sands oil-extraction operations to change the way the Alberta government does anything.

The study by two University of Alberta scientists, Dr. Erin Kelly and Dr. David Schindler, and four others was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a publication that carries a certain amount of weight in scientific quarters.

But the government of Alberta has only three instinctive responses to bad news from scientists about oil extraction from the Athabasca tar sands: deny, deny and deny.

The government of Premier Ed Stelmach is big on pouring taxpayers’ money into slick public relations and advertising campaigns — which have the added benefit of stuffing the pockets of their friends in the advertising industry who are going to be needed when a general election is called.

It’s even better, of course, if there’s some travel to pleasant U.S. destinations for some of his cabinet ministers and their flunkies as they spread the word about what “responsible energy developers” we Albertans are.

And the government is big on attacking the credentials and work of scientists who say things it doesn’t want to hear. So Doctors Kelly and Schindler had better brace themselves for some shocks similar to those directed at researchers Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee last spring.

The government is also big on making up facts of its own. It claims, for example, that the pollutants in the Athabasca are all natural, just seeping out of the sands. (On the face of it, this might be a plausible explanation for at least some of the pollution. But Schindler and Kelley say it ain’t so. According to the Edmonton Journal, the two scientists tested for that specific phenomenon and found it not to have a significant impact. The cause of the mercury, arsenic, beryllium, copper, cadmium, thallium, lead, nickel, zinc and silver pollution, they are certain, is the tar sands industry.)

But what this government just won’t do is what they should do: show a little responsibility.

Make a serious effort to monitor pollutants in the Athabasca River and try to identify their source? Work with industry to get serious about cleaning up the tar sands act? Slow down tar sands development enough to get effective anti-pollution measures in place? Well, they’ll talk the talk, but there’s precious little evidence they’re prepared to actually walk the walk.

And if the slogan of Premier Stelmach is “not on my watch,” don’t expect anything better from Ted Morton, Doug Horner, Danielle Smith or anyone else likely to be the premier of Alberta in the foreseeable future.

That’s why efforts like the campaigns by Corporate Ethics International and ForestEthics drive this government completely bonkers. They could actually work!

Indeed, CEI’s few Re-Think Alberta billboards in the United States and Europe, along with word that several large U.S. retailers intend to try to boycott tar-sands-sourced petroleum products, have caused a remarkable level of hysteria in official and business circles in Alberta.

That’s because the techniques that are used so successfully here in Alberta to brush the government’s and the petroleum industry’s opponents aside don’t work so well when the message they hate finds its way onto a billboard or into the media in Portland or Paris.

Messages like the Re-Think billboards can’t be ignored, dismissed and laughed off the way they can at home. Media managers in Los Angeles and London are less likely than some of their local counterparts to take direction from the premier’s office in return for an early look at a press release. And, face it, Ed Stelmach’s name doesn’t carry a lot of weight in the head offices of Walgreens, Levi Strauss or the like.

Boycotts and consumer campaigns in the United States and Europe have the power to do something the environmental opposition groups here in Alberta, not to mention hard science, can never achieve on their own.

To wit: force the government of Alberta to shape up and start acting like a government.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...