Scientists Band Together, Urge Canada to Stop Tar Sands Expansion

In a rare, large consensus, more than 100 scientists unite to say expanding tar sands will be catastrophic for the climate and environment.

Mining in Alberta's tar sands became the focus of scientists who say further development will irretrievably harm the climate. Credit: Wikimedia.

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More than 100 North American scientists released a consensus statement on Wednesday concluding that mining in Canada’s tar sands region is destroying the local environment, endangering the rights of indigenous groups and threatening the world’s ability to fight climate change—and urging Canadian leaders to curtail their development.

Their statement, 18 months in the making and the first to specifically take a stance on the oil sands, said further development would make it impossible to stave off dangerous levels of climate change. They sent the analysis to Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of Parliament, and requested meetings to discuss the findings.

“We offer a unified voice calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects,” the scientists wrote. “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.”

Signatories to the statement include climate scientists, economists, geophysicists and biologists from dozens of U.S. and Canadian universities and private institutions. Among them are 12 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, 22 members of the U.S. National Academy, five recipients of the Order of Canada, and a Nobel Prize winner, Stanford University economist Kenneth Arrow. Other signatories include James Hansen, the former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the earliest climate science advocates; Stanford conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich; climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University; and atmospheric scientist Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“This is a remarkable coalescing of folks who have had quite different positions on other issues ideologically, and even on climate change, but are speaking in a unified voice on oil sands,” said Thomas Homer-Dixon, a lead author and an expert on global security threats, including climate change, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

“It is really important to clear up a lot of the misinformation that has been promulgated about the oil sands,” said Homer-Dixon. “The document states things really unequivocally. It helps clarify what scientists actually know about tar sands issues like the ability to restore the landscape after mining and tar sands’ relationship to climate targets.”

The oil sands are large deposits of a heavy crude oil known as bitumen. The tar-like substance is more difficult to clean up when it spills than other types of fuel, and emits 17 percent more greenhouse gases over its life-cycle than conventional crude oil.

The statement identified 10 reasons for a ban, including the widespread poisoning of nearby forests and waterways resulting from lax environmental regulations. The statement noted that less than 0.2 percent of the land affected by tar sands mining has been reclaimed or restored to its original state. The scientists also concluded the tar sands threaten the culture and livelihoods of aboriginal communities living near the mining sites.

Fossil fuel companies currently produce two million barrels of oil sands crude per day in Alberta. The Canadian government and fossil fuel companies plan to ramp up production to six million barrels per day by 2030. The scientists warn, however, that continued expansion will lock the world into a carbon-intense fuel source instead of moving toward cleaner alternatives, making international targets to reduce greenhouse gases nearly impossible. They also argue that leaving the oil in the ground won’t destroy Canada’s economy––or political careers. They cited polls that show North Americans overwhelmingly support climate action, even if it means slightly higher energy costs.

“We are not saying close down the existing oil sands” and lay off the thousands of existing workers, said Mark Jaccard, a lead author of the statement.  “We’re saying stop expanding the oil sands and stop building pipelines. At least on the climate side, it doesn’t work,” said Jaccard, an energy economist and climate policy expert at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

Scientists have historically shied away from public policy debates. A growing number, however, have broken that trend in recent years to advocate for climate action. In March, 30 scientists called on natural history and science-based museums to cut ties with fossil fuel industry donors like the Koch brothers. Others have written letters to policymakers recognizing the broad scientific consensus on human-driven global warming, or in support of nuclear energy to fight climate change.

“The climate change issue brings this out in scientists,” said Jaccard. “We’re seeing it around the world. There’s the growing realization that if I’m reading more and more about how the whole ecosystem that I love and study is threatened, I have to get more engaged.”

The scientists’ message: