Alberta’s oil sands producers have suffered another hit to their reputation, as a group of prominent scientists and academics called for a moratorium on further development due to environmental concerns.

Decisions on oil sands development “add up to a social and environmental legacy that will last for generations,” Simon Fraser University ecologist Wendy Palen said on a conference call Wednesday. Ms. Palen said the group pulled together scientific research on oil sands development from their various fields and reached a consensus: “We offer a unified voice, calling for a moratorium on new oil sands projects.”

In a statement signed by 110 researchers from across North America, the group says the planned growth in oil sands production is inconsistent with efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and avert the worst impacts of climate change, and also threatens the ecosystem of a vast stretch of the boreal forest.

“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 [aboriginal] treaty rights,” their statement said.

The scientists’ call is just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over the scale and pace of development – the same fight that embroiled Tim Hortons in a damaging controversy last week over its decision to run, then pull, ads by pipeline company Enbridge Inc. The increased awareness has forced companies to dramatically boost spending on mitigation, and strengthened the hands of those who would block new pipelines that producers need to reach new markets.

The oil sands’ expansion and construction of the proposed pipelines – whether TransCanada Inc.’s Keystone XL in the United States or its Energy East project in Canada – are “inconsistent with efforts to avoid potentially dangerous climate change,” said SFU energy economist Mark Jaccard, one of the statement’s authors.

He said U.S. and Canadian governments should reject pipeline proposals; restrict the expansion of crude by rail; impose a significant carbon price on oil and gas extraction, and strengthen regulations to reduce local impacts. Taken together, those policies would add up to a de facto moratorium because companies would scale back investment.

While scientists’ statement is unlikely to move the Harper government, it provides fuel for opponents of Keystone XL in the U.S., as well as other pipelines. It also comes as Alberta’s new NDP government is reviewing its fiscal and regulatory regime for the oil sands, and promising to unveil new greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations for the sector.

The Group of Seven leaders agreed in Germany this week on the need for “urgent and concrete action” to prevent average global temperatures from rising by more than 2-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In advance of a climate summit in Paris in December, the G7 leaders – including Prime Minister Stephen Harper – committed to develop long-term, low-carbon strategies.

Mr. Harper emphasized the long-term nature of the commitment, and said no country would shut down vital industries. He has long rebuffed calls to impose GHG-reduction rules on the oil sands sector which – while only a small part of global emissions – represents the fastest growing source in Canada.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency – which advised rich countries on energy policy – has produced its own 2-degree scenario, which focuses on the need to reduce coal demand and dramatically improve energy efficiency. IEA chief economist Fatih Birol has said growth in the oil sands is virtually immaterial to goal of limiting warming to 2-degrees.

Several industry executives – including TransCanada CEO Russ Girling – have acknowledged the need for carbon pricing, but they insist there will still be a need for growing oil sands production in order to meet the world’s demand for the energy to support economic growth and to alleviate poverty.

A spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said the Harper government has agreed to work with the United States and Mexico on joint approaches to energy and climate that would support each country’s effort to meet its international commitments. “Over the past decade, Canada’s economy has increased while emissions have decreased as oil sands development has supported hundreds of thousands of jobs across Canada,” Mr. Rickford’s director of communications, Chris McCluskey, said in an email.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers forecast this week that – even with current low crude prices – oil sands production would grow from 2.2 million barrels per day last year to 4 million in 2030.

The list of signatories include a Nobel Prize laureate, a dozen fellows of the Royal Society of Canada and 22 members of the U.S. National Academy. Several of the Canadian scientists – including Queen’s University biologist John Smol and University of Alberta biologist David Schindler – have studied local pollution impacts of the oil sands, and been critical of the lack of proper monitoring.

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Jun. 10, 2015 1:00PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Jun. 11, 2015 12:17AM EDT