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A group of more than 100 leading scientists from both Canada and the United States called for a moratorium on new oil sands development at a June 10 telephone press conference.
The scientists laid out 10 reasons why continued expansion of the oil sands is incompatible with keeping climate change at a level that does not cause widespread harm. These include: a lack of adequate protections and baseline data; contamination of the Canadian boreal zone; a lack of land reclamation; oil sands development and transport undermining First Nations land rights; developments in North America setting a precedent for combating climate change elsewhere; controlling carbon pollution not being an economic threat; cumulative impacts of oil sands development being ignored by current policies; and a majority of both Canadians and Americans wanting their leaders to address climate change.
“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,” state the signatories of the 10 Reasons document.
Professor Wendy Palen, from Simon Fraser University’s department of biological sciences, said at the conference that decisions made around the oil sands formed part of a “legacy that would last generations,” and said that the 10 Reasons were grounded in science.
“We are convinced that further oil sands development is not consistent with avoiding dangerous climate change, said professor Thomas Homer-Dixon from the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs, adding that the longer people waited before changing course, the worse the costs, which may include food crises and social upheaval.
He called on Canada to avoid a “carbon hole,” and find alternative pathways for economic development and prosperity, warning that hydrocarbon-based energy sources would decline in economic value.
“We need a plan B and the first step in that plan is halting oil sands growth,” said Dixon, who was joined by others who said that atmospheric carbon levels are reaching dangerous levels.
The biggest priority for water expert David Schindler is honouring the treaty with First Nations who inhabit the land that companies have used for oil extraction. Treaty 8, for instance, was meant to guarantee Indigenous peoples' ability to make a subsistence living.
“I think anyone who’s seen an oil sands mine realizes that there’s no subsistence living to be had in that territory, and the traditional game or fish that people have relied on have contaminants, or mysterious malformations connected with oil sands, or have mysteriously disappeared,” said Schindler, a professor emeritus of aquatic ecology and environmental decision-making at the University of Alberta.
He said he wanted authorities to implement proper consultations with First Nation communities on oil sands projects, rather than the current practice of flying in representatives to talk and simply ticking a box, which Schindler said that he had witnessed himself.
“I think a good start would be that they consult Indigenous people and use the consultations to stay out of some areas,” Schindler said, adding that such areas are mapped but industry leases are still issued.
His words were backed up by Dr. Ken Lertzman from the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, who emphasized that Indigenous people’s way of life was constitutionally protected.
“It’s their rights, their health and culture, their livelihood that’s most at risk,” Lertzman said.
Schindler said the land now subject to development is home to animals such as caribou, which are already in decline in northern Alberta.
As oil extraction involves stripping away peat, restoring the land to its original condition is impossible, as saline water seeps into sediment rock and plants cannot survive as a result, he said.
According to the release, less than 0.2 per cent of land has been reclaimed so far by oil companies. Even that land, it states, has not been restored to its original state.
“It’s time to say we’re not going to commit to any more of these projects,” said Schindler.
But the scientists’ declaration is coming at a time of a global oil glut, as Saudi Arabia works to keep oil prices depressed. Oil in the Persian Gulf can be extracted at relatively low cost, unlike in northern Alberta, where oil sands extraction is high-cost and also high-emission.
According to Dr. Sarah Otto, director of the biodiversity research centre at UBC's zoology department, curbing emissions within a 2 degree C rise would be in keeping with the stated aims of the recent G7 Summit in Germany.
The G7 declaration marked a win for Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was keen to make a deal before climate change talks in Paris later this year. It is also a win for scientists concerned about rising temperatures threatening already-endangered species.
“Potentially we can work to minimize harm and develop technology to minimize harm," said Otto. "But if we lose species, we lose them forever and the same is true for sensitive environments like peat bogs that are being transformed,”