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June 28, 2014
Step Back from New Oil Sands Projects, Scientists Tell North American Leaders
    by Robert Kropp

Citing approval of pipelines and other oil sands projects as symptoms of a broken policy process, a group of scientists call for no new oil sands project approvals unless they are consistent with effective climate change policies.


Oil sands development, primarily in Alberta, Canada, was described as far back as 2008 as “the most destructive project on Earth,” both for the leaking of millions of gallons of contaminated water into surrounding rivers and groundwater and the extreme amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted in the extraction process.

In 2010, the Pembina Institute reported that GHG emissions from oil sands extraction had increased by 121% from 1990 to 2008. Furthermore, the paper projected that oil sands emissions would triple between 2008 and 2020. Because of the increased emissions, Canada has failed to reach its commitment, agreed to in Copenhagen in 2009, to reduce GHG emissions by 17% by 2020.

A report released this spring by Environment Canada further noted that because of emissions from the oil sands, energy has replaced transportation as the industry sector responsible for the nation's highest percentage of GHG emissions.

Meanwhile, a final decision on building the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the oil sands sites in Canada to refineries on the Gulf Coast, has yet to be made by the Obama administration. The Pembina Institute reported last year that "Filling Keystone XL with oil sands will cause a 36 per cent increase from current oil sands production, for which the higher upstream emissions alone will be equivalent to the annual emissions from 6.3 coal-fired power plants or over 4.6 million cars. This value will be higher when the additional emissions from upgrading and refining in the US are considered."

The possibility that construction of the pipeline might be approved has led to widespread demonstrations by environmental activists. And now a number of scientists have lent their voices to the protest as well.

In an article recently publi shed in Nature, a group of scientists criticize American and Canadian administrations for failing to consider the possible construction of the Keystone pipeline as part of overall climate policies. Identifying each pipeline construction as a decision to be made is isolation, instead of in the context of what must be done to address climate change in a meaningful way, “artificially restricts discussions to only a fraction of the consequences of oil development, such as short-term economic gains and job creation, and local impacts on human health and the environment,” the scientists wrote. “Lost is a broader conversation about national and international energy and economic strategies, and their trade-offs with environmental justice and conservation.”

Noting that public hearings on pipeline construction “have formally excluded testimony by experts or the public about carbon emissions and climate,” the scientists recommend a two-step process to ensure that the full consequences of oil sands development are understood.

First of all, a long-overdue price on carbon “will help to ensure that the full social costs of carbon combustion are incorporated into investment decisions about energy and infrastructure.” Secondly, “policy-makers need to adopt more transparent and comprehensive decision-making processes that incorporate trade-offs among conflicting objectives such as energy and economic development, environmental protection, human health and social justice.”

Until such time as policymakers are equipped to make informed decisions, the scientists are calling for a moratorium on further oil sands development. “Reform is needed now,” they state. A binational carbon and energy strategy should ensure that “decisions on infrastructure projects...are made in the context of an overarching commitment to limit carbon emissions.”

 

 
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