Scientists Call for Moratorium on Tar Sands

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Scientists Call for Moratorium on Tar Sands

Group argues that North American governments must consider 'cumulative' costs to environment, human health

An open pit mine in the Alberta tar sands fields. (Photo: Dru Oja Jay, Dominion/ Howl Arts Collective/ cc)

An open pit mine in the Alberta tar sands fields. (Photo: Dru Oja Jay, Dominion/ Howl Arts Collective/ cc)

The culmulative effects of tar sands development—from environmental degradation to transportation to emissions from burning—must be determined before Canada or the United States approve any more projects, a group of scientists argue in an op-ed published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Calling for a binational moratorium, the scientists—representing a number of North American universities including Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Northern Arizona University, the University of Calgary and the University of Waterloo—argue that governments must evaluate tar sands development projects, including the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, "in the context of broader, integrated energy and climate strategies."

"Anything less demonstrates flawed policies and failed leadership," they write. "With such high stakes, our nations and the world cannot afford a series of ad hoc, fragmented decisions."

The group continues:

When judged in isolation, the costs, benefits and consequences of a particular oil-sands proposal may be deemed acceptable. But impacts mount with multiple projects. The cumulative effects of new mines, refineries, ports, pipelines, railways and a fleet of transoceanic supertankers are often at odds with provincial, state, federal or international laws protecting clean water, indigenous rights, biodiversity and commitments to control carbon emissions.

The scientists say that current debate which presents each pipeline proposal as an "ultimatum" between environmental costs and economic success "artificially restricts discussions to only a fraction of the consequences of oil development."

The letter comes just over a week after the Canadian government approved the construction of Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline, which will carry 200 million barrels of tar sands crude each year from Alberta to an export terminal in Kitimat, British Columbia. 

"Reform is needed now," the group adds, concluding: "Canada and the United States can avoid the tyranny of incremental decisions — and the lasting economic and environmental damage that poorly conceived choices will cause."



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