A new scientific study of Alberta's oilsands industry has concluded that the contentious developments do not deserve their toxic environmental reputation.
But the report, published Wednesday by the Royal Society of Canada, criticizes governments for not doing enough to monitor the oilsands' potential environmental impacts or address future problems with the projects.
The peer-reviewed study, prepared by seven prominent academics, concluded there is "no credible evidence" that oilsands projects pollute the air, contaminate water supplies, or cause health problems in nearby communities.
The report found no evidence to support claims of elevated cancer rates and other health problems in communities downstream of major oilsands projects and concluded that northern Alberta's Athabasca River isn't threatened by the oilsands.
"Notwithstanding the evidence, there appears to be a strong and recurring perception of potential cumulative health risks," said the 23-page executive summary of the study, "which itself can lead to stress-related health issues in the affected communities."
The panel of scientists took aim at critics of the oilsands and the media for sensationalizing claims of the industry's environmental impacts.
"Is the oil sands industry the most environmentally destructive project on earth, as has been suggested by some media and declared critics of the industry?" the scientists wrote. "Based on our review of the publicly accessible evidence, a claim of such global magnitude is not accurate."
"Despite the lack of evidence to support this particular view, it has gained considerable traction with the media and it now pervades the internet."
The panel, which was convened by the society independently of any government, corporate or other organization, was also critical of federal and provincial governments for their failure to address potential future risks posed by oilsands development.
"Our governments – federal and provincial – need to show some leadership in … clearly demonstrating responsibility in how the oil sands are currently developed now and in the future."
The study noted that both levels of government have outdated and inadequate environmental regulations and said their environmental impact assessment process "has serious deficiencies."
Water monitoring of oilsands projects is set at a lower standard than that used for forestry and not enough is known about groundwater in northern Alberta, said the report.
As well, the study said the province hasn't obtained enough financial guarantees to ensure oilsands mines are eventually cleaned up, leaving Alberta taxpayers facing a potentially enormous bill in the future.
The report also pointed out that the oilsands will make it harder for Canada to meet its international commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions and scolds Ottawa for failing to enforce federal jurisdiction over the oilsands.
"Despite many clear areas of valid federal interest, the profile of relevant federal agencies has been low."
Despite the criticism, Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner welcomed the report, saying in a statement that the province will take the report to heart.
"It raises a number of issues that require attention -- some of which are already being addressed -- and puts into perspective the actual impacts of oilsands development," he said. "Challenges still remain and we will identify where more can be done."
The Royal Society report is one of several expected from panels that have been convened to address public concern over the impact of the oilsands.
A federal panel struck by former environment minister Jim Prentice is to deliver its report on Thursday, although it's not clear yet when that report will be made public.
Another panel formed by the provincial government is expected to report in the new year.