On the Channel 4 News video – Uncovered: Canada’s Dirty Oil Secret – An embarrassing hit piece full of errors and falsehoods

Recently, I was directed to a report prepared for viewing on Facebook called Uncovered: Canada’s Dirty Oil Secret by Channel 4 News which is reportedly a news program. After watching the report I wasn’t entirely sure what to say. My first response after watching it was to write:

It is factually wrong and uses strategic interviews with recognized opponents who say things that are demonstrably untrue and then presents their words uncritically on the screen

While my statement is true, it doesn’t make for much of a blog post so I suppose I will have to provide a bit more detail. The following is my attempt to highlight some of the incredibly bad journalism in this execrable video.

The report is only 10 minutes 20 seconds long, but it packs a lot of misinformation, errors and falsehoods into that short span. Let’s start with the introductory statement:

Canada, as much of the world sees it. A progressive country. A land of unspoiled wilderness. But in Alberta’s devastated oil sands an image of a very different Canada

It takes only four sentences to get what can gently be called misinformation. The Athabasca oil sands lie beneath 142,200 km² of land. Disturbed oil sands area encompass less than 1% of the oil sands area. It is very hard to understand how surface impacts that occupy less than 1% of an area can fairly be called “Alberta’s devastated oil sands“.

Fourteen seconds into the video and we have another falsehood.

Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, driven by intensive oil and gas extraction

While it is true that Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world; that extra warming is not driven “by intensive oil and gas extraction“. As explained by the global climate models, warming will occur first in the extreme north and extreme south of the planet. Canada occupies more of the extreme north than any country other than Russia and that is why we are heating faster than countries near the equator.

Now I have to be clear here, if I tried to conduct a second-by second debunking of this video I would be here all week, so I will stick to the highlights hereafter. Let’s go to 34 seconds into the piece:

[the pipeline] will carve through sacred indigenous lands….two different cultures dollar versus the wind, the water…raise carbon emissions while risking devastating oil spills…there will be no cleanup whatsoever.

This section is a load of hokum followed by a direct mistruth.

The vast majority of the pipeline will go along an existing right-of-way that has undergone intense archaeological study. Pretending that the lands under the majority of the pipeline are “sacred” is a false narrative. Arguing that First Nations have a different culture ignores that First Nations are bidding to own the pipeline. As for the mistruth, the claim that there would be no clean-up of spills is calumny that the editors must know is categorically false. That they chose to present it in their video immediately indicts their motives.

I know the argument the editors will make: we are only presenting what these people have to say. The problem is that presenting information that you know, or should reasonably know, is false and doing so under the guise of providing an “opinion” simply doesn’t cut it for a reputable news organization.

We are less than a minute in to this report and we have encountered enough falsehoods that I need a break. Unfortunately, they don’t give us a break it just continues. At minute 1:

I’ve come to ground zero of Canada’s environmental devastation. Fort McMurray, Alberta. It’s hard to imagine that the ravaged land below was once carpeted with forest

[Inigo Gilmour] Canada’s tar sands, Canada’s most shameful environmental secret. Below me is what’s been called the largest and most destructive industrial project in human history.

Let’s start with the visuals. The camera work is careful to provide incredibly narrow shots, likely because wide shots would have shown that the impacts while significant, are not widespread. You can actually see unaffected forests in the top of the shot in numerous shots.

Now I want to note a curious feature of this report (featured in the title). The video presents a bizarre narrative that the oil sands are simultaneously a single, massive industrial project and yet they are also some massive secret. This “secret” theme repeats throughout the piece. Channel 4 apparently believes the oil sands are Canada’s Manhattan Project that we keep hidden from the world. If only the North Korean nuclear program was kept as well hidden as the oil sands.

As for the claims by Mr. Gilmour. Once again they choose to use quotations because what he says is far from the truth.

The oil sands aren’t one big project but a number of projects separated from each other by massive swathes of forest. They are not one of the largest and most destructive projects in human history. They don’t come close. They pale in comparison to the Soviet destruction of the Aral Sea and if we are talking ecological destruction, I would argue the City of London and its boroughs have less biodiversity and natural habitat than the city of Fort McMurray and its environs.

This is a funny thing about the ecological hypocrites from urban European cities. They look at Canada which has protected massive areas while leaving others unaffected by development and complain we aren’t doing enough. What percentage of England has been set aside as permanent ecological reserves? How much of England been dedicated to parks? What does England’s natural biodiversity look like?

Let’s jump now to 1:35.

The new Trans Mountain Pipeline will span over a 1000 through western Canada. Its export serving the Asian market. It will treble oil production from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels per day.

Apparently our narrator did not get the memo about there being no Asian market for Alberta crude. As for the next line, it is simply wrong. The pipeline will not increase production to 890,0000 per day it will provide transport for existing production. Any reasonable editorial fact-checking should have caught this error.

The next couple minutes involve the narrator interviewing Chief Alan Adam who lives downriver of Fort McKay. He claims that the oil sands have affected the river including claims that the oil sands developments have added heavy metals to the river. This is simply not the case. The Athabasca River and its tributaries run directly through the oil sands. Natural hydrocarbon seeps have been contributing impacts to this river system for tens of thousands of years.

As described in the academic literature, studies of the rivers and lakes upstream of the oil sands often find higher concentrations of mercury, trace metals, methylmercury, napthanic acids and other dissolved organics upriver of the oil sands. Put simply, the independent, academic research indicates that the river impacts are mostly natural in origin with only minor anthropogenic contributions.

As for the “state of the health of the community”. Alberta has brought in teams of professional epidemiologists to assess the conditions in the Athabasca region. They did a comprehensive analysis and eventually established that the rates of various illnesses were consistent with what would be expected in these communities. No cancer clusters existed. The final report was completed in 2014 (presented in full at the Alberta Health Cancer page). This report debunked the claims of activists (as described in the CBC follow-up report:“Higher cancer rates not found in oil sands community, study shows”).

Now comes a realization. I am over 1100 words into this post and only one quarter of the way through the video. Having demonstrated that virtually everything being presented is done through an anti-oil sands (of Tar sands in their case) lens, I will now stick to debunking the apparently deliberate misinformation and outright errors for the rest of the video.

At 4:30 the narrator claims the pipeline will produce “8.8 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide” which the narrator claims is equivalent to 2.2 million additional cars on the road every year.

At this point it is eminently clear that no one involved in this project has a clue what they are talking about, because even a well-educated child would recognize the error in this sentence. They are pulling from the City of Vancouver presentation on the Trans Mountain and the correct number was 8.8 million tonnes. Apparently the gang that couldn’t shoot straight doesn’t understand the topic well enough to recognize that MT means million tonnes rather than metric tonnes. This error actually caused me to laugh because it so clearly displays the ignorance of every member of this team that they would get such a basic piece of information so completely wrong. Remember, this report supposedly went through a fact-check and they still got a number off by a MILLION.

Of course what is an anti-pipeline video without Kanahus Manuel who makes her appearance around 6:20 into the video. She makes a number of false statements including saying that in case of spills “there will be no clean-up whatsoever” that “this is a bitumen pipeline” that bitumen from the pipeline “will actually sink“, that “there’s no exact cleaning methods” and that there were pipeline spills in their territory “where clean-up never happened“.

Every one of these statement is untrue. I’m not going to sugar-coat this because Ms. Manuel cannot possibly be this ignorant this long into her struggle. She can’t possibly not know the truth. She appears to be lying and the producers of the video have failed in ensuring that the report presents a true picture of the situation.

What is the truth? Every spill on the Trans Mountain has been carefully documented and has involved a clean-up. The details of every spill are preserved by the National Energy Board. The pipeline will carry diluted bitumen which is chemically different from bitumen. Diluted bitumen floats on water and the science is clear there are numerous means of cleaning a dilbit spill. It is hard to imagine that the editors of the video could allow this many errors in a row by accident.

At 7:45 we get to the Stoney First Nation and the narrator repeats a claim that the Stoney were not consulted on the pipeline, except that is not true.

At 9 minutes is another incredible claim. That the pipeline will result in 250 oil tankers a month in the Burrard Inlet. Try as I might, I can’t figure out where they got that number from. It appears to have been created from thin air. The project is expected to generate about 400 tankers a year [okay I seem to remember the actual number from the NEB was 408 but I could be off by a couple]. Once again it is hard to attribute this bad number to ignorance, but given the serious errors made prior to this it is entirely possible that the video producers are so completely uninformed that they chose not to look at any of the documentation on the project and just repeated a number presented by others. In any case this is the sort of thing a competent fact-checker should have caught and fixed. It doesn’t just make Channel 4 look bad, it makes it look incompetent.

The next line is Reuben George suggesting there is 87% chance of a spill with a million people getting sick within hours. These numbers are simply nowhere near the truth. According to studies by experts the increase in major spill risk is negligible and the suggestion that a million people will get sick is the result of Mr. George’s consultant making an embarrassing mistake confusing a pseudo-surrogate with an actual compound in oil. Mr. George then repeats long debunked economic arguments and ends with a threat.

I finally, and thankfully, come to the end of this painfully bad propaganda piece. After watching this video I can only express disgust and dismay. It is full of misinformation, half-truths, easily identifiable errors and what some would call outright lies. That so much bad information got through the “fact-checking” and so many falsehoods made it through the editing process erases doubt I had about the motives of the producers. Channel 4 needs to pull this video and fix it. The errors are an embarrassment to any organization that claims to present the news.

Author’s Note:

In an earlier version of this post I mistakenly indicated that Channel 4 was associated with the BBC. That was incorrect. This post has been revised to address this error. My apologies to the BBC for associating them with this drek.

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5 Responses to On the Channel 4 News video – Uncovered: Canada’s Dirty Oil Secret – An embarrassing hit piece full of errors and falsehoods

  1. billbedford says:

    Channel 4 is NOT part of the BBC. It is a completely separate broadcaster.


  2. Ken Young says:

    Excellent rebuttal. Thanks. I took the liberty of sending a copy to Channel 4 News. I also sent it to the Minister of Natural Resources and Minister of Environment and Climate Change suggesting that this amounted report to an attempt to besmirch Canada’s stewardship of both our natural resources and the environment and we need to defend ourselves with facts and accurate reporting.


  3. J G Campbell says:

    Thank you. I very much enjoy reading your blogs.


  4. Ian Harvey says:

    I love your writing. Love it. I was so incensed at this drivel I wrote to Channel 4 and wrote letters to the editor at the Times and Telegraph. I doubt they’ll react.
    I did suggest however that their “documentary” was bought and paid for by a group like Tides who footed the tab for these “propagandists” to fly out to Canada and underwrote their expenses.
    I’ve been a journalist for 40 years writing for national and top level daiiy newspapers.
    I would have been sacked on the spot if I’d turned in this kind of shoddy rubbish.


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