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An oil-sands facility is seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alta., July 10, 2012.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Canada should impose a moratorium on oil-sands development until Ottawa and the U.S. can fashion a joint plan that would set a carbon price and ensure all resource development is consistent with an aggressive strategy to reduce carbon emissions, a prominent group of academics say in the journal Nature.

The commentary in the prestigious journal is the latest salvo from oil-sands critics who argue the booming development of the carbon-intensive energy source is inconsistent with Canada's commitment to reduce emissions and is devastating local ecosystems.

The eight professors include University of Simon Fraser biologist Wendy Palen, University of Calgary geographer Joseph Arvai, Simon Fraser economist Mark Jaccard and Thomas Homer-Dixon of the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Several of them have also publicly opposed both the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia and the Keystone XL project that would ship Alberta heavy oil to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast.

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In the commentary, they argue the approvals process for oil-sands projects and related pipelines and other facilities fails to take into account the cumulative impacts of development, and there needs to be a new regulatory framework that takes a more global view.

"A key step is a moratorium on new oil-sands development and transportation projects until better policies and processes are in place," they say. "Reform is needed now: decisions made in North America will reverberate internationally, as plans for the development of similar unconventional reserves are considered worldwide."

The call for a moratorium has little political support. While opposition New Democrats and Liberals in Ottawa have opposed specific pipeline projects, neither party has called for a halt on development, and both have supported a proposed pipeline to Eastern Canada that would carry 1.1 million barrels per day of crude.

The federal government has adopted some climate policies, including measures requiring greater fuel efficiency in cars and trucks, phasing out coal-fire electricity and funding research and clean-tech development.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has rebuffed calls for tough regulations on oil-sands emissions, saying Ottawa will move only when the U.S. imposes similar measures on its oil sector. And he said recently that he will not take any action on carbon policy that would threaten jobs.

In a statement Monday on the government's climate policies, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said the government "is taking action to lower emissions, while growing Canada's economy."

But pressure is building in the United States and internationally for a global strategy. In the U.S., some top business leaders – including former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Goldman Sachs chairman Henry Paulson – issued a a report arguing that climate change will impose incalculable cost on the United States and calling for a carbon tax.

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In the Nature commentary, the Canadian academics say Ottawa and Washington need to take a leading role in the international battle against climate change and that, without aggressive action, the costs to the global economy will be far greater. For Canada, that means reining in the oil sands.

"The internal policies in terms of how these projects are evaluated and then the ramping up of development of the oil sands are inconsistent with international commitment Canada has made, and it's inconsistent with showing leadership on climate policy," Ms. Palen said in an interview.

"For us, it's an obvious conclusion from the data."

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