Ducks are distractions


in Canada, Rants, The environment, The outdoors

The continuing furor over the 500 ducks that died in a toxic oil sands tailing pond seems like an excellent demonstration of the capacity of people to utterly miss the point. Oil sands extraction has converted a vaste swathe of boreal forest into toxic wasteland, speckled with tailings ponds up to 15 square kilometres. The Pembina Institute has asserted that: “Despite over 40 years of oil sands development, not a single hectare of land has been certified as reclaimed under Government of Alberta guidelines.” In addition to that, there is the water use and the greenhouse gas emissions.

To look at this and have your attention dominated by a few unlucky birds seems like the height of myopia.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. May 8, 2008 at 10:45 am

You should appreciate the importance of symbols within the environmental movement.

After all, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is frequently credited with kicking the whole thing off.

Milan May 8, 2008 at 11:49 pm

That is fair enough, I suppose.

Still, it’s sad that people cannot appreciate the ecological damage in a more comprehensive way.

. May 9, 2008 at 3:05 pm

The oil sands can be extracted in two ways: open-pit mining for oil sands located on or just below the surface, and in situ recovery for oil sands located underground. About 80 percent of the oil sands are located deeper then 70-80m below surface and some large proportion can be extracted but only via in situ techniques (Mawdsley et al. 2005). The remaining 20% can be extracted by open-pit mining techniques. After the excavation or drilling, bitumen is extracted from the remaining mixture of sand and water. About two tons of tar sands are required to produce one barrel (roughly 1/8 of a ton) of oil. The next phase is either to use hydrogen to upgrade the bitumen to 30o API syncrude, which has a quality comparable to conventional crude oil, or to blend it with higher quality diluents such as conventional oil. Both these products can be refined at existing refineries. An important issue is the degree to which natural gas is required either for process heat or for upgrading the quality and reducing the viscosity of the bitumen.

The only operational Canadian open-pit mining process which excavates the oil sands is the truck and shovel technique. After excavating, the extracted material is treated ex situ (above ground), first in a separation plant and then in an “upgrader” plant. The first step in the ex situ treatment cycle is the sizing process, where the biggest pieces are broken into smaller ones by a crusher. Then the bitumen is separated from the water, sands (quartz), and clays by a water-based conditioning and flotation process (Schramm et al. 2001).

. May 9, 2008 at 3:07 pm

A factor that is rarely mentioned is that about half of the increased production is necessary to compensate for the decline of existing conventional wells which were recently the dominant source of oil in Canada.

. May 9, 2008 at 3:12 pm

The Alberta oil sands tax regime is such that it makes it very appealing for investors to put their money into oil sands business. The attractiveness in the fiscal regime is that until all original capital (plus a return) is recovered, only a production royalty of 1% of revenue is required. After the original capital is earned back by oil sand recovery, a royalty of 25% of net operating income is required. The tax regime is such that essentially no income tax has to be paid until all capital costs are recovered (TD Securities 2004).

. May 9, 2008 at 3:15 pm

Both mining and in situ operations use large volumes of water for their extraction process, between 2 and 4.5 volume units of water is used for the extraction of one volume unit bitumen (National Energy Board 2006). Currently the mining operations are licensed to divert 370 million cubic meters (equivalent to 2.3 million barrels) of fresh water per year from the Athabasca river. The planned mining projects will push the cumulative diversion with 529 million cubic meter (3.3 million barrels) per year (Alberta Environment 2006). Almost all process water ends up in tailing ponds.

Besides the fresh water diversions, the mining operations have a direct effect on the ground water level. Mining pits are excavated up till 70-80m below ground level, which is often below natural ground water levels as well. To prevent water flowing into the mining pit, the groundwater has to be controlled by pumping it up. As a result, the groundwater level of the surroundings is lowered, and the flows are disturbed.

In Canada the most common in situ technique is SAGD, which uses steam to extract the bitumen. This process requires a large amount of water. Although most in situ projects try to reduce fresh water use by mixing with saline groundwater, and recycling about 90 to 95% of the used water, the amount of diverted fresh water is relatively high. In 2004 the in situ projects used 5 million cubic meters (31.5 million barrels) of fresh water, and this will grow to 13 million cubic meters (81 million barrels) in 2015 (National Energy Board 2006).

The gaps that the mining pits leave behind are of such an extent that you can see them clearly in satellite pictures from space. The surface sizes disrupted are enormous.

. August 14, 2008 at 12:14 pm

If ever there were a project where sustainable accounting is needed, Canada’s oil sands extraction is it. Greenhouse gas pollution associated with oil sands development is three times higher than traditional oil extraction and refining. Related mining and processing require huge amounts of water, much of which ends up as pollution-laden wastewater in tailings ponds that stretch for miles and miles. So toxic are these ponds that birds have literally dropped dead after landing on the water.

There has been some progress in incorporating environmental costs into financial accounting, but not nearly enough. A key next step is for financial institutions to evaluate these kind of projects with shadow carbon prices that reflect their true long-term costs once carbon-reducing regulations told hold around the world.

Until we see these sorts of practices in the financial community, there’s little reason to expect oil companies to abandon oil sands production anytime soon.

. February 9, 2009 at 2:51 pm

Syncrude charged in duck deaths


Globe and Mail Update

February 9, 2009 at 2:01 PM EST

CALGARY — Syncrude Canada Ltd. is facing federal and provincial environmental charges and could be liable for up to $800,000 in fines and executives could be sent to jail in connection with the deaths of 500 ducks in one of the tailings ponds at its oil sands operation north of Fort McMurray.

“This is the first of its kind for charges to be laid in this manner in Alberta,” Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner told reporters.

The Alberta government announced the charge this morning under section 155 of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, which states that “a person who keeps, stores or transports a hazardous substance or pesticide shall do so in a manner that ensures that the hazardous substance does not directly or indirectly come into contact with or contaminate any animals, plants, food or drink.”

. February 10, 2009 at 3:36 pm

Notable quotable

“We are protective of our environment, of ducks, of conservation in this country. We have laws. We expect them to be abided by and there will be consequences for people who don’t live up to the full extent of the Canadian conservation environmental laws.”

— Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice on the effort to fine Syncrude for tar-sands duck deaths

. March 12, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Pollution charges against Suncor, contractors kept quiet

By The Canadian Press
Thu. Mar 12 – 4:46 AM

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — A major oilsands player in Alberta is facing pollution charges that were laid more than a year ago and some are wondering if Premier Ed Stelmach’s Tory government kept the matter quiet because of an election campaign.

Suncor Energy and two of its contractors were charged in February of last year, shortly before the March 3 provincial election, with dumping dirty wastewater from two northern work camps into the Athabasca River.

But the government made no announcement about the charges and the closest downstream community appears to have been kept in the dark about human wastes being dumped in the river.

. March 3, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Wildlife officers accused of ‘showboating’ in Syncrude trial

Nathan VanderKlippe

St. Albert, Alta. — Globe and Mail Update Published on Tuesday, Mar. 02, 2010 1:30PM EST Last updated on Tuesday, Mar. 02, 2010 6:27PM EST

A lawyer for the oil sands company charged with illegally killing 1,606 ducks is lashing out at provincial wildlife officials for “showboating,” and using a dying bird as a prop.

Images of bitumen-soaked ducks showed in graphic detail the plight of the birds after they landed on a toxic mine-effluent pond belonging to Syncrude Canada Ltd. in April, 2008. They were shown to a judge Tuesday as part of a trial in which Syncrude is defending itself against charges it violated both federal and provincial environmental regulations.

One particularly poignant sequence of images showed a duck being circled by a raven, then attacked and eventually eaten. A second raven then joins in. The pictures, taken by a senior Alberta wildlife biologist, are disturbing.

But Syncrude lawyer Robert White attacked the biologist, Todd Powell, for taking photos of the attack rather than shooting the distressed duck.

“What was more important to these people? Horrifying us with pictures of these ravens eating that poor duck? Why not put that poor thing out of its misery and shoot it?” he said. “They were far more interested in bringing photographs of that poor thing being eaten alive, which makes me sick to my stomach … than they were looking after the suffering of that animal.”

Wildlife workers did, in fact, shoot a dozen ducks that were considered too oil-covered to survive. A short video sequence played before the court shows a duck covered in black, with only a green plume on its head indicating that it is a male mallard.

. October 26, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Birds again land at Syncrude tailings pond

Edmonton— The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 2:42PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 3:02PM EDT

The Alberta government is investigating a new case of waterfowl landing at a Syncrude Canada tailings pond, just days after the oil-sands giant was fined $3-million for the death of 1,600 ducks more than two years ago.

Environment Minister Rob Renner said the birds landed on Syncrude’s Mildred Lake Settling Basin on Monday night. He said the number and status of the birds is unknown but some are heavily oiled and recovery operations are underway.

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