Canadian academics call for oil sands moratorium

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Syncrude mildred lake plant (Image from Wikipedia)
Syncrude mildred lake plant (Image from Wikipedia)

Toronto – In a recent article in the prestigious journal Nature, eight prominent academics called for a moratorium on new developments in Alberta’s oil sands.

The article’s authors — a multidisciplinary group of economists, policy researchers, ecologists and decision scientists — includes SFU sustainability researcher Mark Jaccard and Thomas Homer Dixon, chair of global systems for the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario.

They argue that the controversy around individual pipelines like Keystone XL in the United States or Northern Gateway in Canada overshadows deeper policy flaws, including a failure to adequately address carbon emissions or the cumulative effect of multiple projects.

The authors also point to the contradiction between the doubling of the rate of oil sands production over the past decade and international commitments made by Canada and the US to reduce carbon emissions.

“The expansion of oil sands development sends a troubling message to other nations that sit atop large unconventional oil reserves,” said lead author Wendy Palen, assistant professor at Simon Fraser University. “If Canada and the United States continue to move forward with rapid development of these reserves, both countries send a signal to other nations that they should disregard the looming climate crisis in favor of developing the most carbon-intensive fuels in the world.”

The authors point out that oil sands development decisions related to pipelines, railways, mines, refineries and ports should not be made in isolation because it artificially restricts public discussions.

Debate in the news media and during hearings for individual projects are limited to evaluating the short-term costs and benefits to the local economy, jobs, environment and health, and do not account for the long-term and cumulative consequences of multiple projects or of global carbon pollution.

“Individual projects — a particular refinery or pipeline — may seem reasonable when evaluated in isolation, but the cumulative impacts of multiple projects create conflicts with our commitments to biodiversity, aboriginal rights, and controlling greenhouse gas emissions,” explained co-author Joseph Arvai, a professor and research chair at the University of Calgary. “Though we have the knowledge and the tools to do better — to more carefully analyze these trade-offs and make smarter long-term choices — so far governments have not used them.”

A moratorium would create the opportunity for Canada and the United States to develop a join North American road map for energy development that recognizes the true social and environmental costs of infrastructure projects as well as account for national and international commitments to reduce carbon emissions.

Anything less “demonstrates flawed policies and failed leadership,” suggest the authors.

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