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Scientists call for oil sands development moratorium

In the prestigious and renowned science journal, authors state that policy around oil sands are flawed, and that anything less than a moratorium on the oil sands indicates "failed leadership."

Photographs by Andrew S. Wright

The prestigious science journal, Nature, has published a comment calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects in Alberta, Canada, due to serious policy flaws around how oil sands-related decisions are made.

The authors -- who include economists, policy researchers, ecologists, and decision scientists -- say the Canadian government has flawed policy that doesn't address carbon emissions or the cumulative effect of multiple projects. Even more than controversy around the TransCanada Keystone XL project, which would bring Alberta's bitumen to refineries in the U.S., the authors say that Canada's oil sands industry itself is not being safely regulated. 

“The expansion of oil sands development sends a troubling message to other nations that sit atop large unconventional oil reserves,” said lead author Wendy Palen, Assistant Professor at  Simon Fraser University.

“If Canada and the United States continue to move forward with rapid development of these reserves, both countries send a signal to other nations that they should disregard the looming climate crisis in favor of developing the most carbon-intensive fuels in the world.”

"Current public debate about oil sands development focuses on individual pipeline decisions," the authors write. "Each is presented as an ultimatum -- a binary choice between project approval and lost economic opportunity...Lost is a broader conversation about national and international energy strategies and their trade-offs with environmental justice and conservation." 

The authors argue that public discussions around oil sands development decisions are restricted, when government makes the decision in isolation. Long-term cumulative consequences of multiple projects on the world's carbon pollution is seldom explored in the Canadian news, leading to a less informed and engaged public. 

“Individual projects – a particular refinery or pipeline – may seem reasonable when evaluated in isolation, but the cumulative impacts of multiple projects create conflicts with our commitments to biodiversity, Aboriginal rights, and controlling greenhouse gas emissions," said Coauthor Joseph Arvai, Professor and Research Chair in decision science at the University of Calgary.

"Though we have the knowledge and the tools to do better – to more carefully analyze these tradeoffs and make smarter long-term choices – so far governments have not used them.”

A moratorium, the authors conclude, would allow Canada and the United States to develop a joint North American road map for energy development that recognizes the social and environmental costs of infrastructure projects as well as account for national and international commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The comment states that anything less than a moratorium on the oil sands indicates "failed leadership.”

The full comment is on Palen's website here. 

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