Oil Sands Could Threaten Millions of Migratory Birds

oily duckAn anonymous tip last April alerted Canadian officials to the fact that 500 ducks had mistaken an oil sands company's pollutant-filled reservoir in Alberta as a safe place to land. To the public's dismay, only three birds survived.

Hundreds of decomposed ducks have since risen to the surface, leading Syncrude Canada to clarify last week that its lake-sized reservoir, known as a tailings pond, in fact killed an estimated 1,606 birds, mostly mallards. Tailings ponds hold a watery mix of clay, sand, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals that remains after the oil extraction process.

The company's allegedly negligent environmental management has become symbolic of the problems associated with the development of oil sands - strips of sand or clay mixed with a dense form of petroleum known as bitumen. While the true impact of the fuel's extraction and production on wildlife and the climate is still unknown, environmentalists caution that further investments in oil sands would result in much wider damage.

To quantify the potential impact on migratory bird species, the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) explored how many birds - currently alive or yet to be born - would be lost if all the oil sands projects proposed in Alberta came to pass. The report, discussed at a Washington, D.C., briefing on Friday, estimates a maximum death toll of 166 million birds over the next 50-60 years.

"The numbers are of much greater magnitude than anyone imagined because no one ever studied the whole impact of these projects," said lead author Jeff Wells, a senior scientist at the Seattle-based Boreal Songbird Initiative.

Many of the migratory birds threatened by oil sands development already face the prospects of extinction, according to the Canadian government. Endangered species include the whooping crane and piping plover, the NRDC report said.

"We say we have laws that are supposedly protecting migratory birds in both Canada and the United States, but clearly that is not happening," said co-author Susan Casey-Lefkowtiz, a senior attorney with NRDC who is currently suing the governments of both countries to halt oil-sands refinery and pipeline developments.

Higher energy prices turned costly oil sands - also known as "tar sands" - into an affordable option for many energy companies before oil prices nosedived this past year. The province of Alberta, which has received almost Can$1 billion in royalties each year from the fuel, anticipates production to reach 3-5 million barrels a day by 2030.

Beyond the toxic dangers of tailing ponds, oil sands contribute to significant habitat destruction, water depletion, and air pollution across Alberta's boreal forests, critics say. Moreover, producing a barrel of crude from oil sands emits as much as three times more carbon dioxide than is released from conventional oil wells, according to estimates. Although oil sands account for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, the NRDC report notes that the fuel source has become Canada's fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

"Exploiting tar sands in Canada does not make sense in the way ecologists think they know about the workings of the world," said George Woodwell, founder of the Woods Hole Research Center and NRDC's vice chairman, at Friday's event.

Woodwell noted that climate change may pose an even greater risk to America's bird species as regional warming triggers shifts in the location of boreal forests - popular avian breeding grounds. "Birds are able to pick up their suitcases and move, but trees can't do that," he said.

The report's authors caution, however, that their projections combine various oil sands development scenarios to determine the number of birds that could potentially be lost. The study included 170 million birds that breed across 35 million acres of boreal forest. Yet many of the strip-mining operations, tailings ponds, and associated developments such as roads and pipelines included in the analysis have not been approved.   

Dave Ealey, a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, an oversight department focused on forestry, wildlife, and public lands, said that the report exaggerated the true impact of oil sands on the region's forests. Habitat fragmentation caused by new refineries and roads, for instance, would not cause more harm than natural wildfires, he said.

"The scale here is misleading by accumulating the lost [bird] populations over future generations," Ealey said. "It creates the impression that more birds are impacted by oil sands than is actually the case."

With regard to climate change, Ealey noted that the province is providing Can$2 billion for three to five carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects. "No doubt global warming is an issue," he said. "Alberta is the only area with CCS legislation. It's something we'll pursue."

Without CCS projects, the future of oil sands developments could be jeopardized. The Canadian government has required companies to reduce only the rate at which they emit greenhouse gases, without restricting overall emissions levels. But recent economic analyses have cast doubt on whether international momentum toward a low-carbon economy will support controversial oil sands projects financially.

"Oil sands extraction is very carbon intensive, yet most oil sands projects do not anticipate regulatory constraints on CO2 emissions," according to a March report by Innovest Strategic Value Advisors. The report warned that the cheaper cost of natural gas may also prevent oil sands from overcoming the current economic recession: "Projects in the pipeline will never recoup their investment."

Climate change and fossil fuel developments are already a leading driver behind bird population declines in the United States, the dominant purchaser of Canadian oil shale. An estimated one-third of the roughly 800 U.S. bird species are endangered, threatened, or in significant decline due to habitat loss, invasive species, and other threats, according to a U.S. Department of Interior report  released last month.

"Birds tell us so much about what is going on around us," said Gabriela Chavarria, director of the NRDC's science center. "They tell us that there needs to be a change in U.S. energy policy."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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