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Fort McMurray is no Hiroshima

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CALGARY -- In the 20th century, much of the divide in politics and policy was over how best to create jobs, incomes and keep people from starving -- in other words, how to create opportunity as part of the good life. Those on the "left" argued for state intervention and often outright state ownership; those on the "right" pointed to open markets and other elements of capitalism as the superior route to avoiding poorer populations.

The outcome of that titanic struggle is well-known; the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the command-and-control Soviet Union two years later cratered support for the most extreme forms of state intervention.

But that was then. These days, a policy divide often opens up in the struggle to convince large chunks of the public, especially in urban areas with little contact with rural life, not to kill off development.

Part of the problem in such an exercise is that not all development comes wrapped in a pretty package.

An example comes from folk singer Neil Young who recently ranted against Canada's oilsands. In a Washington D.C. speech, Young said the northern Alberta oilsands city, Fort McMurray, "looks like Hiroshima." Young called the city "a wasteland" and asserted that "The Indians up there and the native peoples" were "sick and dying of cancer because of this (the oilsands)."

The cancer scare claim originates in a 2006 accusation from Dr. John O'Connor. The Nova Scotia physician worked in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., and alleged the oilsands were causing an epidemic of cancer.

But after three other physicians complained to the College of Physicians and Surgeons about the O'Connor claim, the college investigated and, in a leaked 2009 report about O'Connor, said "Dr. O'Connor made a number of inaccurate or untruthful claims with respect to the number of patients with confirmed cancers and the ages of patients dying from cancer."

Furthermore, in 2010, the Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel summarized its findings that, "There is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oilsands developments reaching downstream communities at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer cases."

Young's tirade reveals part of what drives opposition to the oilsands -- an aesthetic dislike for their visual appearance.

Fort McMurray may not be scintillating but it's hardly a "wasteland." I've been there, as well as to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their atomic bomb museums. To compare a northern mining town to Hiroshima is cheap demagoguery and displays a profound ignorance about the atomic bomb's horrific effect upon the Japanese population in 1945. Such invidious comparisons should not be lightly made.

Mining for oil is not pretty, but then neither are mines that extract the metals necessary for bike parts, or any industrial activity that requires disturbing the earth to extract some substance. That is, after all, real life. (It is also transitory -- advances in technology have greatly improved the reclamation of mining sites.)

When artists decry mining, they forget that not every occupation is perfectible or can result in an aesthetic pleasure -- be it ditch-digging, setting up a city sewer system or getting minerals and oil out of the ground. Natural gas heats our homes and oil helps transport food to market. Modern-day routine attempts to better the human condition should not be held hostage to idealistic artists who have a misplaced utopian vision about the aesthetic perfectibility of oil-soaked dirt.


Mark Milke is a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2013 A9

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