Alberta Tar Sands Development Deadly for Millions of Birds

EDMONTON, Alberta, Canada, January 19, 2009 (ENS) – Exploitation of Canada’s tar sands, the world’s largest proven oil reserves outside Saudi Arabia, is damaging forest and wetland habitats in Canada’s northern boreal forest, new research shows. The oil sands development could claim more than 160 million boreal birds, the peer-reviewed study predicts.

The report is the joint product of research by the Pembina Institute, a nonprofit research organization with offices across Canada, the Seattle-based Boreal Songbird Initiative, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. national research and advocacy group.

The report, “Danger in the Nursery,” says that almost all the world’s biggest oil companies are involved in tar sands extraction in an area of northeastern Alberta, which supports at least 292 species of breeding birds.

Many of the most abundant songbirds and waterbirds of the Americas also breed in the “bird nursery” of the boreal forest, and are already suffering declines because of logging, and degradation of their migration staging sites in addition to the risks posed by tar sands development.

Alberta tar sands (Photo © Garth Lenz courtesy Boreal Songbird Initiative)

Site preparation for strip mining of the tar sands requires draining lakes and wetlands, diverting streams and rivers, clearcutting forests, and removing all vegetation. Hydraulic shovels and trucks are used to dig as deep as 100 meters into the earth.

The report’s lead author, Dr. Jeff Wells, is senior scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “Strip mining is projected to destroy up to 300,000 hectares of boreal forests and wetlands. But more than 80 percent of established tar sands reserves are too deep for recovery via strip-mining and must instead be extracted using in-situ drilling techniques that need a dense network of roads, pipelines, compressor stations and energy generation facilities, which will eventually destroy more habitat than strip mining.”

“The ecological effects of these disturbances extend into adjacent forest, meaning that a majority of the remnant forest will be affected,” says Wells.

BirdLife International, based in Cambridge, UK, says globally threatened species are at risk from tar sands development.

Olive-sided flycatcher (Photo by Jeff Nadler courtesy BirdLife International)

Among globally threatened species are the rusty blackbird, Euphagus carolinus, and Sprague’s pipit, Anthus spragueii, both Vulnerable, and the olive-sided flycatcher, Contopus cooperi, which is classed as Near Threatened.

The only wild, migratory population of the Endangered whooping crane, Grus americana, nests at Wood Buffalo National Park to the north, and migrates over the tar sands region, occasionally stopping over at boreal wetlands.

“The report demonstrates a very large number of birds will inevitably be impacted by tar sands development,” warned Dr. George Finney president of Bird Studies Canada, a BirdLife co-partner. “It is incumbent on governments and developers to be rigorous in attempts to mitigate these impacts through restoration, remediation and investments in offsetting conservation actions.”

“Canada’s boreal forest is an incredibly important area for many breeding neotropical migrant birds, and contains numerous Important Bird Areas”, said John Cecil, national IBA program director for the National Audubon Society. “The report details impacts to at least five IBAs, among numerous other impacts.”

“The loss of as many as 166 million birds is a wholly unacceptable price to pay for America’s addiction to oil,” said NRDC’s Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a contributing author to the report.

“Birds tell us so much about what is going on in the environment around us,” she said. “This report makes it very clear that they are telling us it is time for a change in American energy policy. There are better energy options available in North America that do not foul our air, poison our waters, or kill our backyard birds.”

The oil sands boom in Alberta has been fueled by an increasing market in the United States for the synthetic crude oil refined from bitumen, but oil sands crude has been the source of controversy on both sides of the border.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the U.S. federal government have both pledged to focus on fuel sources with lower emissions.

In the Great Lakes region, there has been a public outcry over lax pollution permits granted to a number of high-profile projects being undertaken to increase oil sands refining, such as the BP refinery expansion in Whiting, Indiana.

The term tar sands refers to thick oil called bitumen that is mixed in with sand, clay, and water. The mining, extracting and upgrading it into synthetic crude produces greenhouse gas pollution. Producing one barrel of synthetic crude oil generates three times the greenhouse gas emissions of a barrel of conventional oil.

Wells says that boreal birds and their habitats in northeastern Alberta and adjoining regions of Saskatchewan are already being negatively impacted by airborne and waterborne pollutants from tar sands operations.

Tailings ponds filled with toxic mining waste present a high risk to migrating waterbirds, since they remain open when natural water bodies are frozen. In April last year, around 500 ducks died after landing on a tailings pond near a tar sands operation in northern Alberta.

“It is time to put a moratorium on the tar sands,” said Ted Cheskey, an ecologist with Nature Canada, a BirdLife co-Partner in Canada. “It is also time to ask the federal government of Canada why it is not using the Migratory Bird Convention Act as an instrument to better protect boreal birds.”

“This report is yet another wake up call to the government in Alberta, as it confirms that the cumulative impact of oil sands development is on an unsustainable trajectory,” said the Pembina Institute’s Simon Dyer, a contributing author to the report. “It is clear that oil sands mining and in-situ development is already taking a toll on boreal birds. Alberta must move quickly to implement long overdue conservation planning and policies to address these impacts.”

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