More Than 100 Scientists Call for a Halt to Tar Sands Oil Expansion

Canada's push to increase tar sands production will worsen the impacts of climate change, say scientists.

Giant dump trucks haul raw tar sands near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, September 2014. (Photo: Todd Korol/Reuters)

Jun 10, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

More than 100 North American scientists and academics have called for a halt to the expansion of tar sands development in Canada, saying that increasing the production and shipping of tar sands oil would cause irreparable damage to the climate and the environment.

“We offer a unified voice calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects,” including oil extraction and pipeline construction, said Wendy Palen, a conservation biologist at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, during a call with reporters on Wednesday.

The government of the current Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, advocates a major expansion of the tar sands oil industry and has resisted cooperating on international talks to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Palen said their consensus was based on scientific evidence that expanding tar sand oil production would have catastrophic impacts, because burning that oil would increase the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere past 450 parts per million. This would increase global temperatures more than 2 degrees Centigrade above historic averages, and intensify the extreme weather, flooding, heat waves, and other impacts of climate change already being felt worldwide.

“We’re not saying shut down current production” of oil sands, economist Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University told reporters on the call.

But proposals to increase production from the current average of 2 million barrels a day to as much as 9 million barrels are irresponsible, he said.

“What the research shows is that we should not be doubling down or quadrupling down on the barrels of oil per day,” Jaccard said. “We know how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere before we get to dangerous climate change. We’re near that limit already.”

Expanding the industry also would risk collapsing Alberta’s economy as oil becomes a less valuable commodity in a carbon-constrained world, he said. “Oil sands are an economic dead end because the climate is changing, and there will eventually be a North American or global charge for carbon,” he said.

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The pipelines being proposed to transport more tar sands oil must also remain on the drawing board, the scientists said, because they threaten to contaminate boreal forests and wild rivers that are habitat for diverse wildlife, including salmon, caribou, and other endangered species.

These pipelines would “transform some of North America’s most pristine ecosystems into industrial landscapes,” said Thomas Sisk, a scientist at Northern Arizona University in the United States.

The scientists have put their statement online at Cosigners include Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel Prize–winning economist at Stanford University, as well as prominent U.S. climatologists James Hansen and Michael Mann.

“Canada needs to get with the program” to diversify its energy sources and curb the impacts of oil on the environment, said Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “Or we can go rogue, refuse to participate in a climate deal, and dig ourselves further into a climate hole.”