New Health Study Debunks Latest Opponents’ Claim on Keystone XL

With their climate case against Keystone XL in complete shambles, some opponents have attempted to shift the focus of the debate to concerns about public health.  At a press conference last month, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, even went as far as to declare a health emergency.  As the headline in The Hill read, “Boxer warns Keystone will cause cancer.”

But a new study released this week, shows that this stunt will fail just as opponents’ other claims have failed over the past five years.  As the Canadian Press reported,

“A study by the Alberta government says an aboriginal community downstream from the oil sands doesn’t have higher overall cancer rates […] James Talbot, chief medical health officer, says relatively high levels of cervical and bile duct cancer are most likely to be attributable to other factors than environmental contamination. ‘Overall, cancer rates in the region are what would be expected for the rest of Alberta,’ he said Monday when the survey was released.”

So where did Senator Boxer get her information about Keystone XL causing cancer? Claudia Cattaneo with the National Post provided the explanation in her column this week:

Claims that oil sands development is responsible for the spread of cancer among aboriginals have been circulating since 2006 when John O’Connor, an Alberta doctor, expressed concerns about what he considered to be elevated cancer rates around Fort Chipewyan, a community of 1,200 located 220 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

In a 2009 study, the Alberta Cancer Board found that rates for some cancers are higher in Fort Chipewyan than in Alberta’s general population, but a year later the Royal Society of Canada found that “there is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands reaching Fort Chipewyan at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates.”

Health Canada filed four complaints against Dr. O’Connor for causing “undue alarm.”

An investigation by Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons found Dr. O’Connor’s public statements about the health of Fort Chipewyan’s residents contained “mistruths, inaccuracies and unconfirmed information.”

But that didn’t discourage Dr. O’Connor, a Greenpeace campaigner, from appearing at the news conference with Senator Boxer to bolster the anti-Keystone XL message by claiming there is a public health crisis in the community.

After five years of delay, there is no question that Keystone XL opponents are great at generating headlines based on faulty assumptions. The good news is that the American public sees right through it: poll after poll continues to show overwhelming bipartisan support for the project. As an editorial in Nature urges, President Obama “should face down critics of the project, ensure that environmental standards are met and then approve it.”



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