Report predicts millions of bird deaths from tar sands

Last week, the Boreal Songbird Initiative, Pembina Institute and the Natural Resources Defence Council released a report describing the predicted impact of the tar sands on bird populations. The report, Danger in the Nursery, used modelling based on best current knowledge of bird populations in northeastern Alberta, combined with documented and estimated impacts of different elements of tar sands development and expansion on bird populations.

The picture is grim for many reasons. Impacts include:

  • direct lost of habitat to strip mining
  • settling ponds threat to migrants
  • fragmentation and destruction of habitat from deep drilling installations with their road and pipeline networks
  • air pollution from the operations and the production and refining processes
  • water withdrawal, diversions and contamination

How do the tar sands impact habitat?

Strip mining
One of the most common ways to extract the bitumen, the oil saturated sand and soil particles, is by stripping the vegetation, top soil and sub soils, draining the watercourses, and then scooping it out with giant machinery. 3,000 square kilometres of boreal forest will be strip mined in the next 30 to 50 years, based on current predictions. Strip mining destroys everything in its path. All the life-giving processes are removed. Soils are “stock-piled” as they are in more familiar residential housing developments. However, once stripped and piled, the vitality of the soil is destroyed.

Efforts to reclaim mined lands and restore boreal forest fail miserably. The complex relationships between soil organisms such as bacteria, fungus, plants, invertebrates and larger fauna (including birds that are the hallmark of the boreal forest) are thousands of years in the making, but take only a few moments for the giant machines to destroy. This is the fate of habitat for up to 3.6 million birds!

Tailings ponds
The tailings ponds are created to store and ‘cap’ the residual waste product, after most of the oil has been removed from the bitumen. The residual is a toxic sludge that is pumped into artificial lakes, some several kilometres across, and ‘capped’ with clean water. These lakes will eventually cover about 100 square kilometres of area. They are death traps to birds landing in them, as was documented when 500 ducks died after landing in a Syncrude tailings pond in the spring of 2008. Annual mortality from tar sands to bird populations could be as high as 100,000 individuals!

Deep drilling
Deep drilling used to extract deeper bitumen deposits, requires a huge infrastructure of road networks, rigs, and pipelines and a reactor to produce steam. These typically burn natural gas, but there is much talk about using nuclear energy to produce steam, as is done for electrical generation. These operations and its infrastructure will destroy 5,000 square kilometres of boreal forest and result in significant fragmentation of a much larger area. These remaining fragments imbedded in the network of roads, pipelines and drilling rigs will be subject to excessive noise, dust, and pollution. Up to 14.5 million birds could be lost due to these activities!

Air pollution
The tar sands are by far the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada, producing as much as three times the amount of greenhouse gases as conventional oil production. In addition, production and refining operations produce huge emissions of toxins, from nitrogen oxides that acidify hundreds of square kilometres, to cadmium and arsenic that cause cancer. Many of these chemicals bioaccumulate in the food web, concentrating in predators such as birds, and ultimately impacting their reproductive success. Climate change is happening at a rate faster than wildlife can adapt, particularly in the north. For example, insect hatches on which so many species of migrating songbirds depend can be out of synch with migration timing.

Water diversion and contamination
Approximately one million cubic metres of water is diverted from the Athabasca River to tar sands operations each day. This water is used both in the tailings ponds and in the process to remove the oil from the soil particles. This is done by using steam, requiring vast amounts of water. The process uses approximately three times the water for every unit of oil produced. For the deep in situ extraction process, steam is injected into the ground to heat up the bitumen so that it can be pumped out. Tailings ponds are constructed in close proximity to the river, raising the potential for contamination of one of the Canada’s largest watersheds. Cancer rates in First Nations communities downstream from the tar sands operations have sky rocketed. Only 8 percent of the water removed from the river is returned. Ninety two percent ends up in the tailings ponds. The Athabasca watershed downstream is threatened, as the River is already under increasing stress from dropping water levels as the glaciers that feed into the Rocky mountains gradually retreat and sources diminish.

Birds most at risk

Of the 22 to 170 million birds that breed in the area that is and could be impacted by the tar sands, a large number of species are in trouble. Here are two very different examples, one big and one small.

Whooping Crane

The only natural population of Whooping Crane, a critically endangered species currently numbering around 400, is in Wood Buffalo National Park, directly northwest of the tar sands. The strip mines, forest fragments, and most ominously the 50 to 100 square kilometres of toxic tailing lakes which appear particularly inviting from the air, lie directly on their migration route. What are the chances over the next fifty years that a group of migrating Whooping Cranes drops out of the sky to take refuge from a storm in the toxic death traps below?

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Olive-sided Flycatcher was added to the official list of Canadian Species at Risk in 2007. The population of this exclusively insect eating bird has declined almost 80 percent in the last 40 years in North America. Most of its world population occurs in the Canadian boreal forest. Like many other boreal dependent species, it is being assaulted on many fronts, both on its breeding grounds, non-breeding grounds in the Amazon basin and Andean slopes of South America and during its extremely long migration in between.

The Olive-sided Flycatcher lives exclusively off flying insects, catching them in flight. The boreal forest in north eastern Alberta is an important area for this species. Loss of thousands of square kilometres of habitat will remove a chunk of its population. Climate change adds an additional stress. Climate change, particularly global warming, alters hatching dates for the insects, putting this important food source out of synch with the timing of bird migration. Climate change also leads to desiccating droughts and contributes to subtle changes in habitat that have not-so-subtle impacts. The tar sands are the biggest single contributor by far to greenhouse gases in Canada.

It is time to put a moratorium on the tar sands. 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 will be discussed in my next blog.

(Photos: Evening Grosbeak, Jeff Nadler; Whooping Cranes, USFWS; Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mark Peck)