|Canada's Tar Sands
How do the Tar Sands Affect Wildlife Habitat?
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. Based on current predictions, 3,000 square kilometres of boreal forest will be strip mined in the next 30 to 50 years. 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!
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, 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!
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.