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Andrew Miall wins prestigious Logan Medal for contributions to earth sciences in Canada

Photo of: Andrew MiallAndrew Miall of the Department of Earth Sciences has been selected as the 2014 recipient of the Geological Association of Canada’s most prestigious awarded, the Logan Medal. The medal recognizes sustained distinguished achievement in Canadian Earth science.

“Andrew Miall has no equal globally in terms of the broad range of his contributions to sedimentary geology over a career that has spanned nearly 40 years,” writes Nick Eyles, Professor of Geology at U of T Scarborough, in his letter supporting Miall’s nomination.

“It is an honour to be recognized in this way,” said Miall, who holds the Gordon Stollery Chair in Basin Analysis and Petroleum Geology. ”I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to build such a rewarding career at the University of Toronto, with the help of so many supportive faculty colleagues, students and staff.”

Miall works at the intersection of energy and the environment. He is widely known for his expertise on responsible development of Canada’s oil sands — one of the country’s most important science-related public policy issues — and has served as a key advisor to governments on ways to improve environmental oversight and management.

Arts & Science News took advantage of the occasion of the Logan Medal win to ask Miall for his thoughts on the state of oil sands development in Canada.

You served on two advisory panels to government. Have those panels’ recommendations on ways to improve environmental oversight and management been implemented to your satisfaction? What are we doing right and what more needs to be done?

Environment Canada responded quickly to the federal Oil Sands Science Advisory Panel report, which we delivered in December 2010, by substantially enlarging their field monitoring program. The Alberta Government received the report from the Alberta Environmental Monitoring Panel report in June 2011 and was somewhat slower to respond, but they have gradually been putting in place the legislation and funding for an independent monitoring agency, which was the main recommendation that we made. There is now a public system for the release of data, which is also an improvement. However, there remains much work to be done, to appoint permanent members of the Board of the new agency and to ensure that the analysis and reporting of the monitoring data are done in a fully transparent way. By and large, the widespread public concerns about the environmental management of the oil sands have ensured that the topic remains a priority of the two levels of government.

Those interested in the current state of the science of environmental management of the air, surface-water and groundwater in the Lower Athabasca region of Alberta can turn to a special issue of the national journal Geoscience Canada which I put together late last year, consisting of a set of five papers dealing with the history of environmental monitoring, and the current state of the science.

What is the biggest myth/misconception about oil sands development?

There has been a widespread tendency to exaggerate the environmental significance of oil sands development. The surface minable area of the oil sands constitutes only five per cent of the area underlain by the oil sands, and 0.7 per cent of the total area of the province of Alberta. The air quality in Fort McMurray has been assessed as comparable to that of the industrial areas of cities such as Edmonton or Hamilton; in other words, far from ideal in any of these places, and something that should be addressed further. There have also been reports of tumours in the fresh-water fish from the area, and some cancers in First Nations residents, and it is important that more research be done to determine the exact nature and seriousness of the oil sands link to health concerns. In that regard, the data necessary for environmental remediation work are now being collected, thanks to the monitoring reviews that we undertook in 2010-2011. That said, the efforts of the industry itself to clean up its act, reduce the energy intensity and the use of water in processing and upgrading should not be ignored.

In the final analysis, all of this requires significant investment in technical and human resources, something that industry seems prepared to do, given social pressures at home and internationally. The University of Toronto also has much to contribute by way of technical and professional training in the necessary disciplines, and through relevant research initiatives.

There is considerable opposition to the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipeline projects. Is it justified?

There have been serious and damaging accidents associated with pipelines, but generally, they are rare. As the Lac Mégantic disaster showed, the alternative means for transporting oil, by rail, for example, are no safer. In that regard, it is important to situate these debates about safety and transportation in the broader social context. The fact is that globally 85 per cent of all our energy needs come from fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) and replacing these sources with renewable energy is simply not going to happen soon. Despite huge investments in countries like Germany and Denmark, renewables still only provide less than two per cent of our energy needs, and to increase this significantly, newer technologies will have to be developed.

It is an unavoidable fact that the energy density and efficiency of oil and gas are unparalleled. At present, we cannot yet do without them, so we should make every effort to ensure that their processing and transportation are as safe and efficient as possible. The rise in unconventional resources (shale gas, tight oil) has given us additional breathing space to develop alternative energy sources for the long term, something we must do as these unconventional resources are also finite. Although there is resistance, nuclear power must also be on the table as we move forward, again with strict attention to safety.

What role should Canada’s First Nations play with respect to the oil sands?

Our panel identified a significant potential role for Traditional Environmental Knowledge in oil sands management, but I am not aware that this potential has been recognized at government levels. Unfortunately, the relationships between First Nations and Canadian governments and industry have had a rocky history, and understandably this has led to a significant breakdown in trust. First Nations can benefit enormously from resource development. Employment, training, equity partnerships, and royalty agreements, are, or should be, on the table with First Nations on all resource development proposals, including pipelines. In my opinion, our governments and corporate leaders need to begin to work on improving mutual trust with First Nations by taking concrete steps to address their concerns.

What can Canada do to improve its reputation vs-à-vis oil sands development?

What is needed is the full and open disclosure of the data gathered to explore environmental and health concerns arising from the oil sands, and significant investment in remediation following production. These are the major recommendations made by the oil sands panels I served on and the most important way to lend confidence to what is being done to address environmental and health concerns as development progresses. In that regard, earth scientists have an important role to play given their scientific expertise and skill sets. Whether identifying the nature and extent of the earth’s remaining fossil fuel resources, addressing the unintended consequences of their development, and/or implementing best practices for the disposal and remediation of environments, all these are central to the earth science disciplines here at the University of Toronto.