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Leave It in the Ground: Scientists’ 10 Reasons for a Tar Sands Moratorium

A detailed list of the 10 reasons that 110 scientists and researchers from the U.S. and Canada want to halt new oil sands development in Alberta.
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Scientists from Canada and the United States—including economists, biologists and geophysicists—have taken a public stand, urging the Canadian government to halt new development in the Alberta oil sands, the notoriously carbon-producing industrial project.

To wit: “Oil sands, tar sands, and bituminous sands are terms used interchangeably to describe a kind of unconventional oil deposit from which bitumen, a highly viscous form of petroleum, is mined from sand, clay, and sandstone,” as the signatories of the letter explained the substance and the process.

Such a consensus among scientists is not that common, as one of them pointed out at a press conference announcing the document and listing the reasons.

“It’s rare that scientists speak collectively about controversial topics,” said Simon Fraser University ecologist Wendy Palen in a statement. “Many of us had come to our own conclusions about the oil sands based on our research, and once we began comparing notes, we recognized the need to speak publicly, now, with a unified voice.”

The researchers began talking to one another “because concerns about the oil sands reach far beyond our individual fields of research,” their statement said.

One of their reasons was directly concerned with treaty rights, but nine other compelling reasons are also part of the mix.

“Based on evidence raised across our many disciplines, we offer a unified voice calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects. No new oil sands or related infrastructure projects should proceed unless consistent with an implemented plan to rapidly reduce carbon pollution, safeguard biodiversity, protect human health, and respect treaty rights. The following 10 reasons, each grounded in science, support our call for a moratorium. We believe they should be at the center of the public debate about further development of the oil sands, a carbon-intensive source of non-renewable energy.”

Continued expansion of oil sands and similar unconventional fuels in Canada and beyond is incompatible with limiting climate warming to a level that society can handle without widespread harm.

In lay terms, this means that warming raises the risk of “severe ecological and economic damage, widespread social upheaval, and human suffering, and that oil sands expansion is inconsistent with avoiding this outcome,” the scientists elaborated, citing various studies. “To address the risks of climate change, Canada has committed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 2030. Continued investment in oil sands production and infrastructure is not consistent with these targets and undermines broader efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and control climate warming. We need a different energy path.”

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Oil sands should be one of the first fuel sources we avoid using as society moves to non-polluting forms of energy, not the next carbon-intensive source we exploit.

“We need reliable energy sources while we develop a new economy around cleaner fuels,” they write. Pursuing energy policies that produce “among the most greenhouse gases of any transport fuel per unit energy delivered”? Not so much.

Current oil sands environmental protections and baseline data are largely lacking, and protections that exist are too seldom enforced.

It is widely acknowledged that there is little oversight of what happens in the oil sands, be it impacts on environment or health.

“Too often, the development of the oil sands is presented as inevitable, while protections for human health and the environment are treated as optional,” the scientists said. 'Nuf said.

Contaminants from oil sands development permeate the land, water and air of the Canadian boreal landscape, and many of these impacts are difficult to mitigate.

It has long been known that the boreal forests of Canada serve as something of a metabolic regulator for the planet. Disturbing or destroying this could have far-reaching effects, the scientists pointed out.

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Canada's boreal forest is essential for regulating the world's metabolism.

Less than 0.2 percent of the area affected by Canadian oil sands mining has been reclaimed, and none restored to its original state.

Industrialists’ claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that the land, water and air can be put back to their original, natural state once the oil companies are through with extraction.

“The oil sands industry’s claim—widely seen in industry advertisements—that its mine sites can be restored to their former natural state is not true,” the scientists said flatly. “Recently published studies find that intensive disturbances associated with oil sands mining change fundamental biological processes, making it impossible to fully restore the affected wetlands, peatlands, and boreal forest, now or in the future.”

In other words, it’s virtually impossible to reconstitute the web of life once you’ve messed with it, since we don’t even understand all its components.

Development and transport of oil sands is inconsistent with the title and rights of many Aboriginal Peoples of North America.?

“Rapid expansion of the oil sands in Canada violates or puts at risk nation-to-nation agreements with Aboriginal peoples,” the scientists said.

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What happens in North America will set a precedent for efforts to reduce carbon pollution and address climate warming elsewhere.

For what it’s worth, the world is watching, the scientists said. Canada and the U.S. are at the forefront and have a unique opportunity to provide some real leadership in this regard.

The choices we make about the oil sands will reverberate globally, as other countries decide whether or how to develop their own large unconventional oil deposits,” the statement said. “Strong North American leadership is needed now, because the impacts of current decisions will be felt for decades and centuries.”

Controlling carbon pollution will not derail the economy.

What is perhaps the most cogent argument by the fossil-fuel industry—the need to create jobs, as well as satisfy the world’s growing energy needs—is actually not a given.

“Most leading economists now agree that limits on carbon pollution—using mechanisms such as carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, or regulations—can facilitate a transition over several decades to low-emission energy without a dramatic reduction in global economic growth,” the scientists said.

Debates about individual pipeline proposals underestimate the full social costs of the oil sands, and existing policies ignore cumulative impacts.

It’s all about the aggregate, the sum being greater than the whole of its parts, the researchers pointed out.

“Responsible policies should address the interwoven, system-wide impacts of oil sands development, from mines and refineries, to pipelines, rail and tanker traffic, to impacts on economies and the global climate system,” they said.

A majority of North Americans want their leaders to address climate change, and they are willing to pay more for energy to help make that happen.

People are actually clamoring for climate change action, the researchers said in summing up.

“An overwhelming majority of North Americans now support government action to address climate change, even when these actions result in modest increases to energy costs,” they said.

The full text of the moratorium, along with a list of the scientists and other documents available for download, is here.