Climate

Scientists Say Tar Sands Development And Limiting Climate Change Are ‘Incompatible’

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eamon MacMahon

More than 100 scientists from the U.S. and Canada called for a moratorium on the development of tar sands Wednesday, saying the carbon-intensive form of energy was “incompatible” with limiting climate change.

The scientists published a consensus statement laying out 10 reasons why mining of tar sands — an energy source that’s found largely in Alberta, Canada’s Athabasca region and whose mining has led to significant deforestation and forest degradation in the province — needs to be halted. Those reasons — all of which were backed up by scientific research — included findings that the expansion of tar sands development would slow North America’s move to clean energy, that environmental protections on tar sands development were lacking, and that less than 0.2 percent of the region affected by tar sands mining had been reclaimed.

“If Canada wants to participate constructively in the global effort to stop climate change, we should first stop expanding the oil sands. More growth simply shows Canada has gone rogue,” Thomas Homer-Dixon, professor of governance innovation at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, said in a statement.

The scientists also singled out the impact tar sands development has on the local environment in their statement. “Independent studies have demonstrated that mining and processing Albertan oil sands releases carcinogenic and toxic pollutants (e.g., heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic compounds) to the atmosphere from smoke stacks and evaporation, and to groundwater from leaching of tailings ponds,” they wrote. “This pollution harms terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and the species within them.”

This pollution also has a major impact on the native communities that live near tar sands development. The community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, home to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and the Mikisew Cree First Nation, has been dealing with the tar sands contamination of the nearby wildlife for years. That contamination affects both tribes’ food source and traditional way of life, which is centered around hunting and fishing. Still, the Canadian government has long disputed that the contamination of the community comes from the tar sands.

“Every time we complain about pollution and sickness to the government, they always come back and says its natural,” ACFN member Jonathan Bruno told ThinkProgress last July. “But our elders and our land users — people who have lived off this land their whole life — they say it’s never been like this their whole lives. And we trust that.”

The native communities aren’t the only ones affected by this development. A 2013 study found that people living in the Fort Saskatchewan area, which is downwind of the oil and tar sands-rich “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta, were subject to levels of some dangerous volatile organic compounds that were 6,000 times higher than normal. Through examining 10 years of health records, the study also found incidence of leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in men was higher in the communities closest to the sources of pollution than in the surrounding counties — a finding that wasn’t a direct link between cancer and pollution, but which was still worrisome.

Tar sands development also emits a large amount of the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. A Canadian government report released last April found that, because of tar sands development, oil and gas production makes up one quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, allowing the energy sector to narrowly beat out transportation in terms of total emissions. The thick, sticky nature of the tar sands makes getting it out of the ground a more carbon-intensive process than extracting conventional crude oil.

The scientists’ statement ends with the fact that, increasingly, Americans and Canadians want to see action on climate change. Some of them are also strongly opposing tar sands and the proposed pipelines, such as Keystone XL, that would carry it. Earlier this month, beloved Canadian coffee and doughnuts chain Tim Horton’s agreed to remove advertisements for pipeline company Enbridge from stores around the country after the ads sparked major public outcry. And over the weekend, thousands marched in Minnesota in a protest against North America’s growing network of tar sands pipelines.