We Talked to Bill Nye about the Tar Sands and the Muzzling of Canadian Scientists

We caught up with Bill Nye while he was in town for the International Astronautical Conference, and he was quite candid about the way Canada is burning up the Earth to make oil, along with our government's tendency to gag federal science research.

by Patrick McGuire
Oct 2 2014, 3:17pm

Bill Nye: still a science guy. Photo via

Yesterday, Bill Nye touched down in Toronto to attend the International Astronautical Congress, an annual gathering of space enthusiasts (where, as Nye says, the nerd factor is "turned up to 11") who share research papers on the future of space exploration. Since his mega-hit show, Nye has taken the reigns of the Planetary Society, an organization founded by Carl Sagan in the 1980s that focuses on science advocacy, research, and outreach.

As the CEO of the Planetary Society, Bill Nye is clearly using his powers as a celebrity scientist for good. During a keynote speech at the University of Toronto last night, he discussed a project the Planetary Society was developing to conquer the possibility of an asteroid hitting Earth. Their solution? Laser bees. These "bees" are tiny robots that surround an offending asteroid and by using mirrors, "focus sunlight onto a spot on the asteroid" which can "gently move it."

Anyhow, I caught up with Bill Nye before his keynote to chat about Canada, the tar sands, and the Harper government's muzzling of scientists. While the topic was a bit of a downer, Nye was incredibly positive about Canada's space program—gushing over the space station, which is pictured on our five-dollar bill:

"I really admire the Canadian space program, you guys do so much more with less. Somehow Canada gets involved with every mission everywhere [ laughs]. And I guess the trick, if I understand it, is that Canada doesn't build its own rockets, which is the expensive part. You specialize in specific instruments, and of course the Canadarm. That's why [the Planetary Society] is very happy to expand our volunteer network into Canada, because the enthusiasm's there.... It's on your five-dollar bill!"

That said, here's how our conversation went.

Bill Nye: I'm hip with VICE; I'm down with the VICE.
VICE: Oh, awesome, that's good to hear. Let's jump right into it then... Climate change has been immensely politicized. How do you respond to outside influences, like industry and government, that try to control the message of the scientific community?
The government in Canada is currently being influenced by the fossil-fuel industry. [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper is a controversial guy in the science community because [of] the policies, especially in Western Canada, with regard to the production—that's the verb they use, "producing," but you're taking old earth and burning it—of tar sands, oil shale... Is there tar shale? Is there sand goo? Whatever.

I used to work in the oil field, albeit much farther south, in Texas and New Mexico. Oil is noxious, but it's not that noxious as stuff to spill on the ground. However, when you start taking this tar sand and oil shale, where you're strip-mining many, many tonnes of earth to get to this stuff, and then you have to burn a lot of it to make it soupy enough to pump—the environmental impact is huge! And there was some trouble with some train cars, and some explosions.

A town exploded.
Yeah. This is all stuff that could be controlled, but part of it, at least for me as an engineer, is that the extraction methods in that part of the world are so aggressive, it's so hard to get this stuff to [a point where it's] useful. The bad news, writ large, is that we'll never run out of fossil fuels. There's so much stuff, so much coal, so much tar-sand oil shale everywhere around the world that we'll never use it up. But we will use up the really easy-to-burn gasoline and diesel fuel.

So we have to resort to tougher and tougher extraction methods.
Right, or how about this: What if we had a way to use less? Wow. Or a hundred ways to use less?

Wouldn't that be novel?
Yeah, so the environmental community generally is pretty disappointed in how Canadian oil companies are extracting this stuff from Western Canada.

Yes, and in Canada now, as a journalist for example, if I am to reach out to a federally funded scientist, I'm put through a PR person who will vet my questions, who may never respond to me, and who will certainly monitor the scientist's potential responses.
I know! It's quite extreme. It's really something.

What do you think about our government limiting the way scientists can speak to the public?
Well, it's not in anyone's best interests. So, speaking as a guy from the US, we have a very similar problem. Some people would say it's the same problem... The thing that's gone badly is that the people who want to maintain the status quo of fossil-fuel burning have managed to introduce the idea that scientific uncertainty [on climate change] is the same as doubt about the whole thing. And that [trend has] justified in many legislators' minds, both in the US and especially in Canada, particularly Western Canada, that It's OK, the science of climate change isn't proven, and let's just carry on. And that's just not in anybody's best interest.

Do you think the funders of scientific research are entitled to control the publication of the scientists' results? Obviously the Harper government thinks they're in a position to say, "No, you can't tell people what we discovered, because we paid for it."
I think that it's not in anyone's best interest. It's certainly not in the spirit of academia, and it's this thing where you don't trust it. That is to say, somebody thinks he or she knows better than the guy or gal doing the research. And that's obviously wrong.

The suppression of knowledge is why things go wrong. I'm not saying you don't want to keep secrets for military or national-security reasons, but the science of climate change is, by many reasonable estimates, more strongly proven (or the research is more robust) than the connection between cigarettes and cancer.

No, seriously. You can suppress that for a while, but it's going to reach the tipping point. And I will say to the legislators, and the voters who might support them: It's going to come back to bite you. You're going to lose political power. And for us, who breathe the same atmosphere as you all, the sooner we change the better. There are going to be huge opportunities. And I appreciate that oil companies feel that they're doing patriotic things by providing energy, economic wealth to Canada, especially Western Canada. I appreciate that. But it's short-term thinking.

To learn more about the Planetary Society (they're looking for members and volunteers) visit their website.

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