A group of scientists from across North America are calling on the governments of Canada and Alberta to impose a moratorium on future development of the Alberta oilsands.

The recommendation is the result of a consensus document that surveys scientific literature related to the oilsands from across research fields. The clear outcome of the research — as it relates to climate, ecosystems, species protection and indigenous rights — is a need to end oilsands growth, the group states.

“As scientists we recognize that no one can speak with authority to all aspects of this complex topic, which is why we came together to synthesize the science from our different fields,” Wendy Palen, professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University, said.

The group of scientists, which include 12 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, 22 members of the U.S. National Academy of Science, five recipients of the Order of Canada and a Nobel Prize winner, released their consensus position on a website, www.oilsandsmoratorium.org, Wednesday. A ful list of the scientists supporting the moratorium can be found here.

“These decisions are complex,” Palen added, “they transcend national boundaries and national interests and they are far broader than any single scientific study or economic assessment.”

Canada’s Carbon Budget

“Within our carbon budget we have high emission sources such as oilsands and unconventional sources of oil and coal that cannot be developed,” Mark Jaccard, energy and climate economist at Simon Fraser University said.

“Therefor while the existing output of the oilsands should not be shut down tomorrow — we’re not talking about harming the Alberta economy or the jobs that are there now — what the research shows, and that’s why we’re calling for it, is that we shouldn’t be doubling down or quadrupling down on the oilsands,” he said.

The oilsands industry produced just over 2 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) in 2014. The most recent projections released this month from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers projects oilsands production to grow to more than 4.2 million bpd by 2030.

In 2013 Canada’s National Energy Board forecasted 5 million bpd by 2035, although falling oil prices have altered most projections.

Jaccard said other forecasts see production skyrocketing to 6 or 9 million bpd.

“None of this needs to be done,” he said.

Alberta Taking on Too Much Risk

Thomas Homer-Dixon, Professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo said the call for a moratorium shouldn’t been see as an “attack on Alberta.”

“The risks are largest for Alberta in particular continuing on this path,” he said. “This is an ultimately economic dead end because the climate is changing and because there will be, in time, some kind of North American or global pricing regime for carbon.”

Homer-Dixon said a path to “alternative routes for economic development” would involve less risk for Alberta.

“Rather than assuming what we’re suggesting is a risky alternative fraught with uncertainty — which it is in some respects — it’s actually less risky and less fraught with uncertainty in many respects than continuing down the current pathway of doubling down on oilsands extraction.”

This week G7 leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, released a declaration calling for a total decarbonization of the global economy by 2100 and a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Although Canada agreed to these goals in principle, many are left wondering what concrete steps will be taken to reduce Canada’s emissions. The Alberta oilsands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

“A moratorium makes a lot of sense”

Homer-Dixon said a carbon-constrained future could have severe effects on Canada and Alberta’s economy if we don’t move into low-carbon sources of energy.

“Far sooner than most Canadians expect we may have trouble selling our fossil fuels to the world,” he said.

David Keith, professor of applied physics and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, said there’s a “there’s enormous, direct self-interest here from people who care about a sustainable Alberta economy.”

“I’ve got kids and my own interests here,” he said. “But the more we grow the harder the fall is going to be.”

“If you don’t want to see a crushing downturn and want to see some sort of gradual turn for Alberta —where there’s a healthy Albertan economy when I’m old and my kids are grown — then a moratorium makes a lot of sense, even from a purely self-interested point of view.”

Keith added he doesn’t see a moratorium as the responsibility of industry.

“The fundamental onus is not on proponents,” he said. “The onus is on the regulatory system — the government of Alberta, the government of Canada — to act in the long-term interest of the people they serve.”

Thinking the Oilsands Beyond Climate and Economy

David Schindler, professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, said the group of scientists are making arguments for a moratorium that extend beyond the scope of climate.

The group lists a total of 10 reasons that support a moratorium including broad support for alternative energy and the treaty rights of first nations.

“If you take the focus off carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses for a minute and look at the other points among our 10, oilsands are really a poster child for unsustainable development,” Schindler said.

He added an additional major concern is the risk pipelines destined to carry diluted bitumen to the British Columbian coast pose to salmon stocks. “They cross hundreds of river channels and particularly in winter when those rivers are covered with ice, you cannot remove spilled oil from under ice.”

He said small spills have caused major problems in the Athabasca River. “The technology for removing that oil from under ice doesn’t exist.”

He said caribou are also disappearing from the oilsands region and expansion of development and pipelines will further exacerbate their recovery.

Ken Lertzman, professor at the school of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, said social justice is yet another reason to support the moratorium.

Lertzman said the production of oil in Alberta and its transit across North America “violates the treaty rights of many indigenous peoples.” He added much of the oilsands development occurs on the traditional territory of First Nations, many of which are still dealing with unresolved land claims.

Both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation have been involved in protracted battles with the Alberta and federal governments to protect their treaty rights and territorial lands from the cumulative impacts of oilsands development.

“Indigenous peoples live on the frontlines of energy development; it’s their rights, livelihoods, health and cultures that are most at risk,” he said.

Image Credit: Kris Krug

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