EDMONTON - Two U.S. senators who toured the oilsands Friday say they were impressed by Alberta's success in balancing industry with environmental stewardship, but critics say the government tour is biased in favour of development.
Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss said the tour, organized by government and industry officials, has persuaded them Alberta is taking a conscientious approach to oilsands development.
"The actual mining is a very small part of the landscape up here, so when you fly over you see a lot of nature and rivers and wilderness," Graham said during a tour of the Syncrude facility in Fort McMurray. "Once you get in the site, it's just massive . . . It's a kind of industrial ballet up here."
The two Republicans and Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat, also toured an area that has been reclaimed.
"From my point of view the environmental issues are being addressed in a responsible way," Graham said. "I am for full-speed-ahead in terms of using Canadian oilsands oil in America."
The tour did not include a visit to aboriginal communities downstream from the oilsands, whose residents believe their water, food and bodies are being poisoned by the operations. The senators did not meet with renowned biologist David Schindler or any other critics of development.
Senator Saxby Chambliss said he was particularly impressed with the technological advances and reclamation efforts.
"From an environmental standpoint it appears the government has got the right plan in place and has the right kind of mandates in place . . . to ensure the reclamation of the land takes place in the right way," Chambliss said.
He acknowledged the tour did not include a meeting with area residents or critics but said he discussed health and environmental issues with the tour operators.
"Obviously you have to be concerned about health issues as well as environmental issues, but it appears the government of Alberta, under Premier (Ed) Stelmach, is doing the right kind of testing both upstream and downstream to ensure the mining operations are not adding any health issues that are unfortunately occurring in the area."
Pembina Institute oilsands director Simon Dyer said the senators did not get a balanced picture of what's happening in Alberta's oilsands.
"Clearly the senators are only hearing one side of the story," he said. "I don't know how you could tour the oilsands in 2010 and not talk about elevated levels of heavy metals in the Athabasca River that have been definitively linked to oilsands development, or talk about the growing greenhouse footprint of the oilsands and the fact that Alberta doesn't have a plan to reduce emissions, or the fact that the federal government has no greenhouse gas regulations."
He said the government's public education campaign around the oilsands fails to give voice to the concerns of reasonable critics.
"In the long term, that's just going to hurt the credibility of oilsands development. The oilsands don't have a public relations problem, they have an environmental problem."
In a blog post Thursday night, Premier Ed Stelmach lauded the government's advocacy efforts.
"Over the last little while you may have noticed your government has been very active championing the oilsands," he wrote, listing half-a-dozen trips Alberta MLAs are making this month to educate industry and government leaders.
"Couple all of this with our Tell It Like It Is campaign . . . and you can see your government is running a co-ordinated advocacy campaign designed to get people the facts on oilsands development."