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'Canada Needs to Get with the Program': More Than 100 Scientists Call for Oil Sands Moratorium

A position paper signed by the scientists and released Wednesday outlines 10 reasons why Canada and the US should delay new oil sands projects.
Photo by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

More than 100 scientists from Canada and the US are renewing the call for a moratorium on all new oil sands development, a move they say is necessary in order to combat the climate crisis.

"Decisions surrounding the development of Alberta's oil sands deposits are among the biggest that we face as Canadians and Americans and the consequences of those individual decisions add up to a social and environmental legacy that will last for generations," said Wendy Palen, a professor of biological sciences at Simon Fraser University in BC, on Wednesday during a press conference.

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"We're convinced that further oil sands growth is not consistent with the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change," added Thomas Homer-Dixon, professor of international affairs at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

"The truth, whether people want to hear it or not, is that the longer we wait before we make major cuts in carbon emissions, the worse the event will cost…those costs could include major impacts on global food supply and widespread social upheaval. Canada needs to get with the program."

A position paper signed by the scientists released Wednesday outlines 10 reasons why Canada and the US should delay new oil sands projects.

It says that expanding the oil sands is inconsistent with Canada's recent pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, current environmental protections around the oil sands are rarely enforced, toxic pollutants that come from oil sands development are difficult to control, and infrastructure projects in both countries threaten the sacred lands and cultural sites of aboriginal communities.

"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 paper reads.

The group is calling it the strongest statement to date from the scientific community about the harmful effects of oil sands development.

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Related: Canada's Carbon Cutting Pledge is Criticized for Being the Weakest Among Leading Economies

The scientists — ranging from geophysicists to biologists from universities including Harvard and Stanford — also launched a new website for their movement, oilsandsmoratorium.org. It encourages people to share their message using the Twitter hashtag #103scientists.

The announcement comes one year after eight of the scientists wrote an op-ed in Nature, arguing Canada should halt future oil sands development and pipeline projects until better processes that reduce carbon pollution are in place — and stop thinking about the industry's development on a project-by-project basis.

"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," they wrote. "Reform is needed now: decisions made in North America will reverberate internationally, as plans for the development of similar unconventional reserves are considered worldwide."

Palen said the positive response from the scientific community to that article was the catalyst for the new campaign.

In May, Canada's Environment Minister proposed new restrictions on methane emissions produced by the oil and gas industry, but climate groups call the restrictions unrealistic and the weakest among G7 countries.

According to the Climate Action Network, a coalition of groups that promote solutions to carbon pollution, Canada is one of the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gas in the world; Alberta has contributed to more than 70 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emission growth since 1990.

The Canadian government says Canada accounted for only 1.6 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions in 2011.

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne 

Watch the VICE News documentary Alberta's Boom Time Hangover here: