A Mallard gets its bill cleaned of oil at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton on Wednesday, April 30, 2008, after being transported from a tailing pond near Fort McMurray, Alberta. About 500 ducks died in the partially frozen pond that was filled with toxic waste. Photo by Sun Media Corp.
When 500 ducks, including the one pictured above, landed in an Alberta tailing pond last April, the news spread quickly across Canada. All but a handful of the birds died after they sank into the sludge. The media reported the story for days, the public demanded answers, Greenpeace sent protesters, and government officials, including the prime minister, were compelled to call for investigations.
Tailing ponds hold the waste produced by petroleum companies that drill and mine the region, and to birds, the ponds look like real bodies of water.
Jeff Wells, senior scientist of the Boreal Songbird Initiative, estimates that 8,000 to 100,000 birds die annually after landing and drowning in them. If mining expansions continue to produce ponds over the next 30 to 50 years, the annual total could range from 17,000 to 300,000 birds.
These numbers are bad enough, but now we know that they're just the tip of the iceberg.
In a report issued yesterday, Wells and coauthors from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pembina Institute say that if mining and drilling operations in the so-called tar sands region continue to increase, as many as 166 million birds could be lost over the next 30 to 50 years.
The total includes:
• Breeding habitat for 480,000 to 3.6 million adult birds lost to strip mining. Over 40 years, the corresponding impact on breeding could produce a loss of 9.6 million to 72 million birds.
• Direct habitat loss due to drilling for as many as 14.5 million breeding birds. Over 30 to 50 years, the habitat fragmentation and degradation caused by drilling operations could raise the total to 76 million birds.
In addition, the only wild flock of Whooping Cranes, which is estimated to number 275 individuals, nests in Wood Buffalo National Park, located north of the open-pit mines. "Birds from this population migrate over the boreal tar sands region and occasionally stop over at wetland locations," the authors note.
The report recommends a moratorium on new projects and project expansions and a cleanup of existing projects. "Alberta needs to prove that even the current level of production can be done without serious environmental impacts."
Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the NRDC said during a conference call with reporters that her group may pursue legal action under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to force the industry to protect birds.
But the blame cannot all be placed with the oil industry and its friends in government.
The report also shows that the gas we Americans buy to fuel our cars often comes from the tar sands region. Wells made that point with me when we met in October at the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting in Virginia. He said most birders probably don't know where their gas comes from. We constantly hear about our reliance on foreign oil, but guess what? Canada is the largest supplier of crude oil and refined products to the United States, supplying about 20 percent of total U.S. imports.
And sadly, tar sands oil is nasty stuff. "The key issue with these tar sands is that this is the bottom of the barrel, the last sludge of oil remaining in the world," says Michael Noble, executive director for Fresh Energy, a Minnesota-based environmental policy organization. "It's the dirtiest and most polluting oil by far, much more polluting than conventional sweet crude." (His comment appeared this week in Minneapolis' City Pages.)
I live less than a mile from Lake Michigan and many of the birds I see here migrate to and from the boreal forest. But according to Wells, the gas I use to drive to local parks probably comes from Alberta.
"The Great Lakes region is playing a role in the destruction of the nesting grounds of the very birds cherished there," the report says. "The Great Lakes region is the largest recipient in the United States of tar sands oil. For instance, most of the Chicago area refineries are currently refining some version
of tar sands oil." — M.M.
A version of this story will appear in "Birding Briefs" in the February 2009 issue of Birder's World.
For further reading:
Alberta's oilsands: Black gold or black eye? Canadian Broadcasting Corp. ongoing series
Millions of birds lives lost: report Edmonton Journal, December 2
List by List: The Endangered Species List doesn't come close to describing the status of all of America's birds. To see the big picture, you have to piece together multiple lists by Jeffrey V. Wells, Birder's World, June 2008
www.oilsandswatch.org Pembina Institute reports on Alberta tar sands