Alberta's oilsands don't deserve all the bad press they've been getting, but the governments that regulate them do, concludes a study by some of Canada's top scientists.
In a report to be released Wednesday, a seven-member panel from the Royal Society of Canada says there's "no credible evidence" that contaminants from the oilsands are boosting cancer levels in downstream communities.
It also says the Athabasca River isn't currently threatened by industrial water use.
But the panel — which was convened by the society independently of any government, company or non-governmental organization — concludes there are considerable risks posed by oilsands development that aren't being addressed by either the Alberta or federal government.
"Our governments — federal and provincial — need to show some leadership in ... clearly demonstrating responsibility in how the oilsands are currently developed now and in the future," says the report's executive summary, released in advance of the full report.
"The current visibility of relevant provincial and federal agencies ... in dealing with the major environmental challenges is low and is generally not in line with the scale of those challenges."
The report points out that contaminant levels in the oilsands region remain low, even though recent studies strongly suggest that hydrocarbons and heavy metals traceable to industry are beginning to show up in the land and water.
It also says air-quality impacts have been generally small and it praises efforts to reclaim mined-out land, although it adds industry has yet to prove it will be able to restore wetlands or tailings ponds.
"There have been substantial improvements in the environmental performance of oilsands production," the report concludes.
But when it comes to regulating the industry, governments have not kept up with its growth, especially Alberta's Environment and Resource Development ministries, the report says.
"These agencies need to seriously review whether they have and can effectively maintain the specialized technical expertise needed to regulate industrial development of this scope and sophistication," the summary says.
As well, Alberta's environmental review process is "seriously deficient" in assessing health and socio-economic impacts.
"These assessments would not satisfy the requirements of the World Bank for funding international development projects," it says, pointing out that community health measures for the Fort McMurray area are lower than both the Alberta average and those for other rural areas.
"There has generally been inadequate overall risk assessment for technological and natural disasters, assessment of community health impacts, integrated and cumulative ecological impact assessment, and assessment of regional socio-economic impacts."
Water monitoring of the oilsands is of a lower standard than that used for forestry and the data from the program isn't made public.
"There are valid concerns about the structure of [the monitoring program] that need to be addressed regarding the appropriateness of the data collected, public access to data, independent scientific oversight and verification of results."
Not enough is known about groundwater movement in northern Alberta, says the summary, especially as the industry moves from open-pit to underground mining.
As well, the report says the province hasn't obtained enough financial guarantees to ensure oilsands mines get cleaned up — although the province has said it is negotiating with industry on the issue.
The report also scolds Ottawa for failing to enforce federal legislation over the oilsands.
"Despite many clear areas of valid federal interest, the profile of relevant federal agencies has been low."