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Open letter to Opposition Party Leaders on Tar Sands Expansion Freeze

Maude Barlow and Andrea Harden-Donhue

Maude Barlow and Andrea Harden-Donahue

There is a lot at stake with this federal election, including our capacity to start addressing climate change, the most pressing issue of our time. Putting a freeze on further tar sands expansion and related infrastructure is a critical step, yet two of the major opposition parties has not made these commitments. So far, we have mostly vague promises of an improved process for reviewing tar sands pipelines.

With this is mind, the Council of Canadians has sent an open letter to all three opposition party leaders with key requests for a new Prime Minister.

Update October 14: Read responses from The New Democratic Party of Canada and The Green Party of Canada.


October 10, 2015

To: Elizabeth May, Leader, The Green Party of Canada

      Justin Trudeau, Leader, The Liberal Party of Canada

      Thomas Mulcair, Leader, The New Democratic Party of Canada

We are writing on behalf of the Council of Canadians about the critical responsibility our country has to address the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. Simply put, the tar sands – or oil sands as they are also known – are big enough. The time has come to freeze further expansion in the tar sands and its related infrastructure and plan a just transition to better energy use, renewable energy and green jobs.

The Council of Canadians is one of Canada’s leading progressive advocacy organizations with more than 100,000 grassroots supporters, and 60 local volunteer chapters across the country. Through our campaigns we advocate for clean water, fair trade, sustainable energy, public health care, and a vibrant democracy.

Heading into the Paris United Nations climate negotiations – widely recognized as the most critical round of talks for a new global treaty – the urgent need for action to reduce climate pollution could not be clearer. The tar sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and a key reason why our country is not on track to meet our existing (and notably insufficient) target for reducing climate pollution.

According to a recent scientific study in the international journal Nature, 85 per cent of Canada’s tar sands can’t be used if the world wants to limit the worst of climate change impacts. Over one hundred scientists have publicly declared that a moratorium on tar sands expansion and related infrastructure is needed.

Tar sands production currently sits at around two million barrels per day. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers expects this to rise to 6.4 million barrels per day by 2030.  Existing pipelines are almost at capacity, meaning new pipeline infrastructure is needed if the industry expands. There are four major pipeline proposals that would fill this role: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain expansion, and TransCanada’s Keystone XL and Energy East projects.

 If all of these pipelines are approved, they would unleash an astounding 73.4 million tonnes of climate pollution every year. This is the equivalent of 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions produced by all of Canada in 2013. In this scenario there is no way Canada can do its fair share to address climate change.

There are other important reasons to freeze tar sands expansion and tar sands export pipelines.

Of critical importance is the impact rapid expansion of the tar sands has had on the landscape that downstream First Nations depend of for their constitutionally protected rights, and growing concern with elevated levels of cancer in people living downstream.  The failure to meaningfully consult and impacts on the ability to hunt, fish and trap has led to numerous legal challenges. The Athabasca Fort Chipewyan and Beaver Lake Cree First Nations strongly support a moratorium on further expansion.

Even though climate change is reducing glacier flow in the Athabasca River, the tar sands industry is withdrawing water for projects equivalent to the drinking water of 1.7 million Canadians. The tar sands’ toxic tailings ponds lose 11 million litres a day through seeping, threatening surrounding land and water with contamination.

Moving tar sands diluted bitumen also heightened risks from spills. As demonstrated by the spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan, heavy bitumen separates from diluents and sinks more quickly than conventional oil in water, making it harder and more expensive to clean up. A recent federal report found not enough is known about the toxicity of bitumen, or its effects. 

The proposed pipelines are almost exclusively for exporting oil to more lucrative international markets and will contribute little to Canadians energy needs, while presenting serious risks to our communities.

As our next Prime Minister, will you commit to:

  • Engaging in meaningful consultations with First Nation and Indigenous communities impacted by the tar sands and along pipeline routes, consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples including free, prior and informed consent, as well as treaty and constitutional obligations.

  • Stopping any further expansion of the tar sands above current levels of production: 2.3 million barrels per day.

  • Repealing the changes to legislation impacting energy project reviews under the omnibus budget bills: Bill C-38 and Bill C-45.

  • Ensuring a fair review process for energy projects that includes extensive public participation, considers upstream impacts and climate pollution, as well as the unique risks to our waterways caused by shipping diluted bitumen.

  • Phasing out all subsidies to the tar sands and other fossil fuels.

While there will undoubtedly be difficult choices ahead, there are also substantial opportunities. Canadians can dramatically reduce energy use through conservation and energy efficiency, reducing climate pollution and electricity bills, while generating good job opportunities. We can invest in areas such as renewable energy, public transit and sustainable agriculture.

We are at a critical time for limiting the global temperature increase to at least two degrees and minimizing the serious damage caused by escalating climate change. We need strong political leaders that can rise to this moment in history and take decisive action to freeze tar sands expansion and its related infrastructure.

We look forward to your response.


Maude Barlow, National Chairperson, The Council of Canadians


Andrea Harden-Donahue, Energy and Climate Justice Campaigner, The Council of Canadians