Tar sands mining in northern Canada. (Photo: Chris Kolaczan via Shutterstock)

Scientists Say It’s Time to Stop Tar Sands

The dirty fuel from northern Canada is dangerous, more than 100 prominent scientists write in an open letter to policy makers — and it needs to stay in the ground.

You might not realize it, but tar sands oil is invading North America. The Keystone XL pipeline has certainly made national news in recent years, but there are many other proposed transmission projects in the works, including the Alberta Clipper and Energy East pipelines and tar sands rail terminals on the East and West coasts. If built, these would allow the amount of dirty, dangerous fuel mined and shipped from northern Canada to increase many times over.

Faced with this undeniable risk, scientists from across North America are weighing in to say that these projects are incompatible with avoiding catastrophic levels of climate change.

In an open letter released today, more than 100 leading members of the scientific community call for a moratorium on tar sands mining. Addressing climate change, they write in this plea to policy makers, will require leaving 75 percent of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground, starting with those that produce the most carbon pollution, like tar sands oil.

As these scientists note, the choices that Canada and the United States make about tar sands in the coming months and years will reverberate globally, as other nations decide whether to develop their own unconventional oil deposits.

“It’s rare that scientists speak collectively about controversial topics,” says Wendy Palen, an ecologist at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University. “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 letter’s authors and signatories include 12 fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, 22 members of the U.S. National Academy, 5 recipients of the Order of Canada, and a Nobel Prize winner. If you want to add your voice to theirs, you can take action here.

Here is the text of their letter published today:

Scientists Call for a Moratorium on Oil Sands Development

Decisions about the development of the vast oil sands deposits in Alberta and elsewhere in North America are among the biggest we face as Canadians and Americans. Their consequences for our national economies and shared environment will last decades to centuries. These decisions transcend the boundaries of scientific disciplines in ways that challenge accurate summary in media and debate.
We, a diverse group of natural and social scientists from both countries, began talking to each other because concerns about the oil sands reach far beyond our individual fields of research. 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 ten 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.
Ten Reasons for a Moratorium
Reason 1. 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.
The latest analyses agree that the warming predicted to occur this century will substantially raise the risk of severe ecological and economic damage, widespread social upheaval, and human suffering (IPCC 2013) and that oil sands expansion is inconsistent with avoiding this outcome (Chan et al. 2010, McCollum et al. 2014, McGlade and Ekins 2014). To address the risks of climate change, Canada has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, and the US has committed to reduce emissions by 26–28% below 2005 levels by 2025. 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 (Office of the Auditor General of Canada 2012, Environment Canada 2014). We need a different energy path.
Reason 2. 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. Extracting, refining, transporting, and burning oil-sands energy produces among the most greenhouse gases of any transport fuel per unit energy delivered (Brandt 2011). Expansion of oil sands production will exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution and slow the transition to cleaner energy (Unruh 2000).
Reason 3. Current oil sands monitoring is inadequate, environmental protections are largely lacking, and those that exist are too seldom enforced.
In Canada, there are few controls and no uniform standards regarding pollution and other impacts from oil sands mining. Water quality monitoring by the Canadian government and industry is poor (Environment Canada 2010, Royal Society of Canada 2010, Dillion et al. 2011, RAMP 2011, Jordaan 2012, Kirk et al. 2014). In some cases, the enforcement of existing regulations (such as 2009 Bill 74 that would eliminate liquid tailings) is formally postponed (Energy Resources Conservation Board 2013). Actual rates of development on the ground exceed stated conservation targets (Komers and Stanojevic 2013, Government of Alberta 2012). Too often, the development of the oil sands is presented as inevitable, while protections for human health and the environment are treated as optional.
Reason 4. 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.
Independent studies have demonstrated that mining and processing Albertan oil sands releases carcinogenic and toxic pollutants (e.g., heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic compounds) to the atmosphere from smoke stacks and evaporation, and to groundwater from leaching of tailings ponds. This pollution harms terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and the species within them (Pollet and Bendell-Young 2000, Gurney et al. 2005, Nero et al. 2006, Gentes et al. 2007, Kelly et al. 2009, Kelly et al. 2010, Rooney et al. 2012, Kurek et al. 2013, Andrishak and Hicks 2011, Parajulee and Wania 2014, Schindler 2014).
Reason 5. Less than 0.2% of the area affected by Canadian oil sands mining has been reclaimed, and none restored to its original state (Government of Alberta 2014).
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. Indeed, the claim is at odds with the industry’s own reclamation plans filed with the Alberta government (Rooney et al. 2012). 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 (Foote 2012, Johnson and Miyanishi 2008). Conversion of the boreal forest alongside other disturbances from oil sands development have led to the decline of federally threatened species such as bison and woodland caribou and important subsistence food species such as moose in addition to the ecosystem-wide effects addressed in Reason 4 (Gates et al. 1992, Dyer et al. 2001, McLoughlin et al. 2003, Sorensen et al. 2008, Morgan and Powell 2009, Boutin et al. 2012, Stewart and Komers 2012). The few attempts to reclaim mined lands have produced landscapes that bear little resemblance to what was there previously and contain only a fraction of the historical biological diversity (Rooney and Bayley 2011, Rooney et al. 2012, Kovalenko et al. 2013).
Reason 6. 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. In Alberta, oil sands mining is contributing to the degradation and erosion of Treaty and Constitutionally protected rights by disrupting ecological landscapes critical to the survival of Aboriginal culture, activities, livelihoods, and lifeways (Passelac-Ross and Potes 2007, Foote 2012, ACFN). In the US, proposed infrastructure projects threaten to undermine Treaty agreements between the federal government and Native American tribes (Mufson 2012, Hart 2014). In both countries, contamination of sacred lands and waters, disruption of cultural sites, lack of consultation, and long-term effects of climate change undermine sustainable social, ecological, and economic initiatives involving Aboriginal peoples across the continent and constitute violations of Native sovereignty (Passelac-Ross and Potes 2007, Foote 2012, Mufson 2012, Hart 2014, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Tsleil-Wautath Nation).
Reason 7. What happens in North America will set a precedent for efforts to reduce carbon pollution and address climate warming elsewhere.
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 (Balouga 2012). Strong North American leadership is needed now, because the impacts of current decisions will be felt for decades and centuries.
Reason 8. Controlling carbon pollution will not derail the economy.
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 (Global Energy Assessment 2012, IPCC 2014, Nordhaus 2014).
Reason 9. Debates about individual pipeline proposals underestimate the full social costs of the oil sands, and existing policies ignore cumulative impacts.
These are not simply business decisions. 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. Current laws, regulations, and policies are not designed to assess cumulative impacts (Johnson and Miyanishi 2008, Office of the Auditor General of Canada 2011). When oil sands development is viewed as an integrated whole, the costs and benefits of individual decisions can be evaluated responsibly (Chan et al. 2014).
Reason 10. 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.
Surveys of public opinion over the last two decades have found increasing public support for effective actions to prevent climate change. 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 (Bloomberg 2014; New York Times/Stanford University 2015).
The time is now
We believe the time has come for scientists to speak out about the magnitude and importance of the oil sands issue and to step forward as participants in an informed and international public dialogue. Working together, we can solve the energy problems before us. It is not too late, but the time to act is now.
Signed,
Thomas Homer-Dixon, PhD, Professor, Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo.
Mark Jaccard, FRSC§, PhD, Professor, Department of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University
Ken Lertzman, PhD, Professor, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University
Wendy J. Palen, PhD, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University
Maureen E. Ryan, PhD, Research Associate, School of Resource and Environmental Management and Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University
Anne Salomon, PhD, Professor, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University
Thomas D. Sisk, PhD, Professor and Olajos-Goslow Chair of Environmental Science and Policy, School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability, Northern Arizona University
* Laureate, Nobel Prize
§ Fellow, Royal Society of Canada
° Member, US National Academy of Science
^ Recipient, Order of Canada
Co-signed (Signatories in alphabetical order),
John P. Abraham, PhD, Professor of Thermal Sciences, School of Engineering, University of St. Thomas
Kenneth J. Arrow* °, PhD, Professor of Economics Emeritus, Stanford University
Anthony D. Barnosky, PhD, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley
Suzanne E. Bayley, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
Elena Bennett, PhD, Professor, Department of Natural Resource Sciences, School of Environment, McGill University
Fikret Berkes, PhD, Distinguished Professor and Canada Research Chair, Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba
Louis Bernatchez§, PhD, Professor, Department of Biology, Université Laval
Steven Bernstein, PhD, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto
Jules M. Blais, PhD, Professor, Department of Biology, University of Ottawa
P. Dee Boersma, PhD, Professor, Department of Biology, University of Washington
Michael Byers, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law, University of British Columbia
James M. Byrne, PhD, Professor, Department of Geography, University of Lethbridge
Stephen R. Carpenter°, PhD, Stephen Alfred Forbes Professor of Zoology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Kai Chan, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, University of British Columbia
F. Stuart Chapin III°, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Christiane Charest, PhD, Professor, Department of Biology, University of Ottawa
Jonathan Cole°, PhD, Distinguished Senior Scientist Emeritus, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Scott L. Collins, PhD, Regents’ Professor of Biology, Department of Biology, University of New Mexico
Robert Costanza, PhD, Professor and Chair of Public Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University
Isabelle Côté, PhD, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University
Chris Darimont, PhD, Professor and Hakai-Raincoast Conservation Scholar, Department of Geography, University of Victoria
Gretchen Daily°, PhD, Bing Professor in Environmental Science and Director, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University
Lawrence Dill§, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University
Peter J. Dillon§, PhD, Professor, Environmental and Resource Studies, Chemistry, Trent University
Simon Donner, PhD, Professor, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia
Nicholas K. Dulvy, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University
Jérôme Dupras, PhD, Professor, Department of Natural Sciences, Researcher, Institut des sciences de la forêt tempéréé, Université du Québec en Outaouais
Anne H. Ehrlich, Honorary Doctorate, Senior Research Scientist Emerita, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University
Paul R. Ehrlich°, PhD, Bing Professor of Population Studies and President, Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University
James Estes°, PhD, Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz
Dr. Marie-Josée Fortin, Professor Dept of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto
Jerry F. Franklin, PhD, Professor, College of Forest Resources, University of Washington
Leah Gerber, PhD, Professor and Director, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University
Andrew Gonzalez, PhD, Professor, Department of Biology, McGill University
Stephanie J. Green, PhD, Research Associate, Department of Zoology, Oregon State University
Nick M. Haddad, PhD, William Neal Reynolds Professor of Biological Sciences, North Carolina State University
Elizabeth A. Hadly, PhD, Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology, Stanford University
James Hansen°, PhD, Former Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; Director of Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program, Columbia University Earth Institute
Kathryn Harrison, PhD, Professor of Political Science, University of British Columbia
John Harte, PhD, Professor, Energy and Resources Group, University of California, Berkeley
Danny Harvey, PhD, Professor, Department of Geography, University of Toronto
Sarah E. Hobbie°, PhD, Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota
Matthew J. Hoffmann, PhD, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto
C.S. (Buzz) Holling§ ^, PhD, Emeritus Professor, University of Florida
David W. Inouye, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology, University of Maryland
David Keith, PhD, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University
Stefan Kienzle, PhD, Professor, Department of Geography, University of Lethbridge
Karen Kohfeld, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Climate, Resources and Global Change, School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University
Petr Komers, PhD, Adjunct Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary
Joshua Kurek, PhD, Professor, Department of Geography and Environment, Mount Allison University
René Laprise, PhD, Professor, Département des sciences de la Terre et de l'atmosphère, Université du Québec à Montréal
Dana Lepofsky, PhD, Professor, Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University
Simon A. Levin°, PhD, George M. Moffett Professor of Biology, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University
Gene E. Likens°, PhD, Founding President Emeritus, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Shaun Lovejoy, PhD, Professor, Physics Department, McGill University
Thomas E. Lovejoy, PhD, Professor, Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University
Michael E. Mann, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and Director of Earth System Science Center, The Pennsylvania State University
Shawn Marshall, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change, Department of Geography, University of Calgary
Damon Matthews, PhD, Professor, Geography, Planning and Environment, Concordia University
Gordon McBean§ ^, PhD, Professor and Director, Centre for Environment and Sustainability, Department of Geography, University of Western Ontario
David R. Montgomery, Professor of Geomorphology, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington
Arne Mooers, PhD, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University
Harold A. Mooney°, PhD, Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University
Barry R. Noon, PhD, Professor, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University
Gordon H. Orians°, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology, University of Washington
Sarah P. Otto§ °, PhD, Professor, Director, Centre for Biodiversity Research, University of British Columbia
Robert T. Paine°, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Biology, University of Washington
Paul Paquet, PhD, Adjunct Professor, Department of Geography, University of Victoria
Edward A. Parson, PhD, Dan and Rae Emmett Professor of Environmental Law, University of California, Los Angeles
Catherine Potvin, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests, Trottier Institute for Science and Public Policy, McGill University
Mary E. Power°, PhD, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley
H. Ronald Pulliam, PhD, Regents’ Professor Emeritus, Odum School of Ecology, University of Georgia
Lynne Quarmby, PhD, Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Simon Fraser University
Peter H. Raven°, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden
Mary Reid, PhD, Professor, Biological Sciences and Environmental Science Program, University of Calgary
Rebecca C. Rooney, PhD, Professor, Department of Biology, University of Waterloo
Benjamin D. Santer°, PhD, Atmospheric Scientist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Daniel E. Schindler, PhD, Professor and Harriet Bullitt Chair in Conservation, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington
David W. Schindler§ ° ^, PhD, Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
William H. Schlesinger°, PhD, President Emeritus, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Dolph Schluter§, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia
Jonathan B. Shurin, PhD, Professor, Behavior and Evolution, Division of Biological Sciences, University of California, San Diego
John P. Smol§ ^, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change, Department of Biology, Queen’s University
Brian Starzomski, PhD, Ian McTaggart-Cowan Professor, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria
Thomas W. Swetnam, PhD, Regents’ Professor, Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona
Joshua Tewksbury, PhD, Professor, Department of Biology, University of Washington, and Director, Luc Hoffmann Institute
Nancy Turner§ ^, PhD, Distinguished Professor and Hakai Professor in Ethnoecology, School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria
Peter Vitousek°, PhD, Clifford G. Morrison Professor in Population and Resource Studies, Department of Biology, Stanford University
Andrew Weaver§, PhD, Lansdowne Professor, School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria
Gail Whiteman, PhD, Professor and Rubin Chair of Sustainability, Lancaster University, UK
David S. Wilcove, PhD, Professor, Woodrow Wilson School and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University
Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, PhD, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Healthy Communities, Department of Nursing and Indigenous Studies, Cape Breton University
George M. Woodwell°, PhD, Distinguished Scientist, NRDC Founder and President Emeritus Woods Hole Research Center
Erika S. Zavaleta, PhD, Professor, Pepper-Giberson Chair, Environmental Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz
Kirsten Zickfeld, PhD, Professor, Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University