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Government Memo Criticized Top Biologist For Comments On Oilsands

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A large oil refinery along the Athabasca River in Alberta's Oilsands.
A large oil refinery along the Athabasca River in Alberta's Oilsands.

One of Canada’s top biologists says he will not stop talking to the media after a government memo accused him of bias and speaking out of turn about the environmental impact of Alberta’s oilsands.

Queen’s University professor John Smol said Monday he was shocked and outraged to learn earlier this month of an internal Natural Resources Canada memo criticizing him over comments he made to reporters about a study on lakes near the oilsands.

“They cannot stop me from talking about research done in my lab,” Smol told Huffington Post Canada.

The Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change only learned about the complaint after being contacted by the political news website Blacklocks.ca, which was first to report on the memo. The document was made public through the Access To Information Act.

The study, jointly conducted by Smol’s lab and Environment Canada, found that levels of hazardous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in six regional lakes ranged from 2.5 to 23 times greater than they were before oilsands development. The study was published in January 2013 in the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I’m allowed to talk about my science, and everything I said was pre-read by my Environment Canada colleagues,” he said.

The memo to the Natural Resources minister was signed by deputy minister Serge Dupont, who was appointed to a post at the International Monetary Fund in Washington earlier this summer.

It said the study received “significant media coverage” partly due to Queen’s University’s provision of an advance copy to media outlets and a technical briefing by Smol — both of which are standard practice and follow the procedures used for publication in major journals, Smol noted.

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Natural Resources Memo About John Smol's Oilsands Comments by HuffPostCanada

Smol said he became a spokesman for the study partly because the government has clamped down on any of its own researchers speaking with media.

The government memo cited Smol in interviews saying:

‘We have, in some ways, a smoking gun here…We can show that the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, only one of the many contaminants that are out there, are increasing in lockstep with the tar sands developments starting in the 1960s…We’re not saying these lakes are poisonous, but it’s going to get worse.”

The former deputy minister then concluded that Smol’s comments to reporters “indicate a lack of neutrality in the study participants and are not in line with the study findings.”

Smol said his comments were completely in line with the findings of the study and were made to put the results in layman’s terms so taxpayers can understand a study funded by their money.

The government’s view that he lacked neutrality is “absurd” and shows a “disconnect” between government-commissioned science and their public relations machine, he added.

“What is the lack of neutrality in following scientific standards and protocol?” he said.

“Is that really the worst they can say, that I lack neutrality because I gave interviews? Do they see any media interview on dealing with the environment as a lack of neutrality?”

Smol said the government did not attempt to coach him before the media interviews and haven’t spoken with him since. He is working on another government-commissioned study and plans to be equally as vocal when those findings are released.

The memo mentions that Environment Canada is working on more studies on the impact of oilsands development and pledges to brief the minister "on these reports prior to their release."

The study was widely covered in publications ranging from Chinese TV stations to Canadian newspapers to the New York Times. The government memo included a letter to the editor published in the Edmonton Journal by the vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers after the study was published. The letter accused the media of choosing “to deliver narrow speculation instead of facts in the broader context” in its coverage of the peer-reviewed research.

Smol has been widely recognized for his work over the years and is a winner of the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council’s Herzberg gold medal, which recognizes Canada’s top scientist. He is also an officer of the Order of Canada and was named the country’s environmental scientist of the year by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2008.

The Conservative government has come under fire for cutting back on government-employed scientists and muzzling those it does employ.

“I’ve already seen scientists resort to self-censorship,” Smol said, adding some of his colleagues are reluctant to speak out for fear the government will reject their grant proposals.

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