'Time to Act Is Now': North American Scientists Unite Against Tar Sands

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'Time to Act Is Now': North American Scientists Unite Against Tar Sands

'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.'

The Syncrude oil sands facility in Alberta, Canada. (Photo: jasonwoodhead23/flickr/cc)

"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."

So begins a letter (pdf) published Wednesday by more than 100 leading scientists from the U.S. and Canada, two days after G7 countries pledged to be free of their reliance on fossil fuels by the end of the century.

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Extraction of tar sands is incompatible with the U.S. and Canada's vow to fight climate change, the letter states, outlining 10 reasons that a moratorium on any such projects is crucial to preventing irreversible damage to the world's climate and significant negative impacts on the global economy, among other things.

Those reasons include:

  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;
  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;
  3. Current oil sands environmental protections and baseline data are largely lacking, and protections that exist are too seldom enforced;
  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;
    "Working together, we can solve the energy problems before us. It is not too late, but the time to act is now."
  5. Less than 0.2% of the area affected by Canadian oil sands mining has been reclaimed, and none restored to its original state;
  6. Development and transport of oil sands is inconsistent with the title and rights of many Aboriginal Peoples of North America;
  7. What happens in North America will set a precedent for efforts to reduce carbon pollution and address climate warming elsewhere;
  8. Controlling carbon pollution will not derail the economy;
  9. Debates about individual pipeline proposals underestimate the full social costs of the oil sands, and existing policies ignore cumulative impacts;
  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.

"Leading independent researchers show that significant expansion of the oil sands and similar unconventional oil sources is inconsistent with efforts to avoid potentially dangerous climate change," said Simon Fraser University energy economist Mark Jaccard, one of the statement’s authors.

The signatories also launched a website and requested meetings with Canada's top lawmakers to further discuss how scientific evidence points to an immediate need for a ban on the carbon-heavy fossil fuel.

"Oil sands development is industrializing and degrading some of the wildest regions of the planet, contaminating its rivers, and transforming a landscape that stores huge amounts of carbon into one that releases it," said Northern Arizona University ecologist Tom Sisk.

The climate scientists, economists, geophysicists, and biologists who signed the letter include a Nobel Prize laureate, as well as five recipients of the Order of Canada—the country's highest honor—and dozens of researchers honored for their work by Canadian and American scientific societies.

"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," the letter states. "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."

The letter concludes:

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.

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