Verdict on Duck Deaths Shines Light on Canadian Tar Sands

By: Nick Engelfried 

October 23, 2010

As the United States and Canada consider construction of new oil pipelines to transport especially high-carbon oil across the Canadian border to US refineries, a company involved in Canadian oil extraction has been fined three million dollars for failing to protect wildlife.  In 2008, tar sands oil developer Syncrude Canada failed to take steps that would have deterred water birds from landing in tailings pond filled with toxic chemicals from the company’s operations.  This led to the deaths of 1,600 ducks that landed in the pond, leading environmental groups to accuse Syncrude of negligence.

In June of this year, the Alberta Provisional Court ruled Syncrude had indeed broken wildlife protection laws and should be fined for the consequences.  Tar sands operations are required to use deterrents like scarecrows and noisemakers to prevent birds from landing on tailings ponds, but in 2008 Syncrude’s deterrents failed because staff had not been adequately prepared to keep birds away.  On Friday Judge Ken Tjosvold settled on fines that amount to three million dollars, some of which will go toward habitat restoration and wildlife protection. 

Pollution from tar sands still a problem

Despite Syncrude being forced to pay up, groups like Greenpeace warn that Canadian tar sands development still poses grave risks to people and wildlife.  Tar sands oil is a form of underground petroleum that is particularly difficult to extract, and the mining process requires very large inputs of energy and toxic chemicals.  For many years this made it uneconomical for oil companies to invest in tar sands extraction, but that changed a few years ago when the global price of oil began to go up. 

Now many of the world’s largest petroleum companies are seeking to develop the tar sands further, but at significant cost to the environment.  Environmentalists charge that chemicals from tar sands sites are polluting local waterways, while expansion of the mines eats away at Canada’s ancient forests.  Canadian indigenous communities have joined the protest against tar sands development, claiming their health has been negatively impact by pollution from the operations.

Because of the energy needed to extract it, tar sands oil also has a lifecycle carbon footprint up to three times as great as conventional crude oil.  Environmental groups like the Sierra Club warn widespread use of tar sands oil would nullify efforts to cut pollution from US automobiles.  Yet as the US looks for oil reserves outside the Middle East to draw on, Canada’s tar sands have become more and more of a focus.  Pipelines designed to transport more tar sands oil into the US are already being considered for approval by the federal government. 

Keystone XL pipeline draws controversy

At the center of the debate over tar sands oil is whether the US will approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to increase the amount of oil that can be transported across the Canadian border.  If built the pipeline would stretch from tar sands extraction sites in Alberta all the way to Texas, and would deliver 1.1 million barrels of oil to the US every day.  Because the pipeline would cross the national border, the project must secure approval from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before it can move forward.  In the last year a diverse alliance of stakeholders has sprung up to urge Keystone XL’s rejection.

Predictably, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth have come out strong against Keystone XL, urging the Obama administration and Secretary Clinton to reject the permit.  But opposition has also come from less obvious quarters.  Many farmers in Midwestern states have decided they don’t want to see Keystone XL on their land.  If the oil pipeline were to rupture it would quickly poison the local water table, and could even get into the vast Ogallala Aquifer that supplies much of the Midwest with irrigation water.

Despite this opposition, on Thursday Secretary Clinton indicated she would likely grant approval to Keystone XL pipeline—a remark that drew protests from at least three US senators.  Nebraska Senators Ben Nelson (Democrat) and Mike Johanns (Republican), have both said they want Clinton to reconsider due to concerns about the safety of their constituents.  Senator Jeff Merkley (Democrat) of Oregon has also objected, expressing concerns that a new oil pipeline would set back efforts to move the US to a clean energy economy.

Final decision on pipeline pending

The State Department is expected to announce its final decision on the Keystone XL pipeline early next year, and still needs to complete a review of the project’s likely environmental impacts.  As the review process moves forward, environmental and landowner groups are sure to continue pushing for rejection of the pipeline permits.  In the meantime, the finding that Syncrude Canada has already failed to comply with wildlife protection laws in Alberta raises questions about the environmental consequences of further expanding tar sands development. 

Photo credits: Cindy Kilpatrick, Marc Nozell


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