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Know the West

Canada can't expand oil sands and also meet global climate goals

103 scientists call for a moratorium on new development.


A little over a year ago, more than two dozen Canadian scientists applied to offer their expertise at National Energy Board hearings on the proposed expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline. The project would triple the pipeline's capacity to deliver crude from Alberta's oil sands to the British Columbia coast, where it would be exported. The scientists wanted to comment on the climate impacts of the expansion. They were all rejected. Climate change was not within the scope of issues the Energy Board would consider in assessing whether the pipeline was in the public interest. 

A couple of months later, in a rare display of outspokenness on a controversial policy matter, eight scientists published a high-profile commentary in the journal Nature, calling for a moratorium on new development of the oil sands, and of the transportation infrastructure necessary to increase production. Last week, the same scientists released a "consensus statement" expanding their argument for the moratorium as well as their list of supporters. This time, 103 American and Canadian scientists signed on. 

The National Energy Board's refusal to consider pipelines' climate impacts is a prime and disturbing example of a broken policy process, says Wendy Palen, a freshwater ecologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, and lead author of the Nature article. Before the hearings for pipeline proposals, she says, the National Energy Board defines the scope of its review by publishing a list of issues that can be covered. "In the list, they specifically forbid consideration of any cumulative effects," Palen says. "They specifically forbid any testimony of what happens upstream of the pipeline, in terms of additional mining and refining. And you're not allowed to discuss what happens to the products after they leave the pipelines," and are burned.

But the upstream, downstream and cumulative effects are the things that really matter, the scientists argue. While any one pipeline won't make or break future development of the oil sands, together the pipelines being proposed in North America promise to vastly expand the production and use of one of the world's dirtiest fuels. And if that happens, it will be exceedingly difficult to keep global temperatures from rising beyond the 2 degree C threshold that global leaders agree is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Chelsie Klassen, a spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, points out that per-barrel greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands have decreased by 30 percent since 1990. "Canada’s oil sands are an important part of meeting the world’s energy needs," she said, "and demands for a moratorium on development simply ignore this reality." 

Since 1990, however, total emissions in Canada from the mining and initial refining of oil sands have risen by 180 percent. And according to a Pembina Institute report based on government estimates, by 2020 the industry's emissions could be twice as high as they were in 2010, putting Canada on track to miss its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction targets. A study published earlier this year, also in Nature, looked at the quantity and location of global fossil fuel reserves, and estimated which needed to stay in the ground in order to meet the 2 degree goal. The report concluded that Canadian oil sands production must vastly decrease after 2020 to stave off more extreme warming  the opposite of what is likely to happen under current policy. 

"We need to focus not just on the pieces, but on the whole," says Tom Sisk, one of Palen's co-authors, and the director of the Landscape Conservation Initiative at Northern Arizona University. 

During a press conference last week, the scientists calling for the moratorium said they are not suggesting the entire industry be shut down tomorrow. "(But) what the research shows is we shouldn’t be doubling down or quadrupling down on the production," said Mark Jaccard, an energy economist at Simon Fraser University, noting that models agree that you can't keep expanding oil sands production and meet global climate targets. 

"The risks are largest for Alberta continuing on the current path," noted Thomas Homer-Dixon, a global security expert at the University of Waterloo. "This is an economic dead end because there will ultimately be a price for carbon. The less risky path is to explore alternatives that involve extraction of less carbon intensive fuels."

The same principle applies to the Colorado Plateau, says Sisk, which has its own reserves of unconventional, high-carbon fuels. The oil sands and oil shale industries are still fledging here, he says, but efforts to develop these resources are underway in Utah. "Any scenario for developing these resources is very consumptive of water," Sisk says, and water is one thing the Colorado River Basin doesn't have to spare. "This development could make our ability to adapt to climate change that much more difficult."

Cally Carswell is an HCN contributing editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Thumbnail image from a rally against Kinder Morgan's proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline, courtesy Flickr user Mark Klotz.