CHICAGO (December 2, 2008) – Extraction and refining of heavy oil from Canada’s tar sands is taking a significant toll on migratory birds throughout North America, according to a report released today. DANGER IN THE NURSERY: Impact on Birds of Tar Sands Oil Development in Canada’s Boreal Forest is a new peer-reviewed policy and science document outlining the current and projected impacts the tar sands oil industry is having on migratory bird populations in the Boreal forest of Alberta and along the hemisphere’s flyways.
“At a time when bird populations are rapidly declining, this report puts into perspective the far reaching effects of tar sands oil development on North America’s birds,” said the report’s lead author Jeff Wells, Ph.D. of the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “The public needs to understand the real and long-term ecological costs of this development and determine if this is acceptable.”
Canada’s Boreal forest is a globally important destination for birds as a nesting area and breeding habitat, especially for an array of wetland-dependent birds. Unfortunately the rapidly expanding tar sands oil extraction industry increasingly puts these birds at risk. It is estimated that half of America’s migratory birds nest in the Boreal forest, and each year 22–170 million birds breed in the area that could eventually be developed for tar sands oil. The report projects that the cumulative impact over the next 30–50 years could be as high as 166 million birds lost, including future generations. The report suggests impacts will increase in the next 30–50 years, despite international treaties to protect these birds.
Almost every aspect of oil development affects migratory birds throughout the flyways of North America. In Alberta, tar sands mining and drilling causes significant habitat loss and fragmentation. Toxic tailing ponds result in 8,000 to 100,000 oiled and drowned birds annually (for example, this year 500 ducks died in a single incident after landing in one of the polluted water storage lakes). Tar sands mining is a water-intensive process, licensed to use more water than a city of 3 million people.
The threat to birds is not contained exclusively in Alberta. Increasing development of tar sands refinery and pipeline infrastructure is creating a direct pollution delivery system into the Great Lakes. The resulting decrease in air and water quality affects migratory birds, which will suffer elevated mortality numbers as a result of contaminants and toxins from refining. Most importantly, global warming changes already affecting Boreal birds are exacerbated by the tar sands, which account for Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The report was released by a group of concerned environmental and conservation organizations to highlight the growing problem. In the report, experts from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Boreal Songbird Initiative, and Pembina Institute outline potential policy changes that can be made on both sides of the border. The report was peer-reviewed by 10 scientists in the U.S. and Canada.
“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 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.”
“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. 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 tar sands oil boom in Alberta has been fueled by an increasing market in the U.S. for the synthetic crude oil refined from bitumen. The bitumen is mixed in the sandy soil below the Boreal forest, and mining, extracting, and upgrading it into synthetic crude produces significant greenhouse gas pollution. Producing one barrel of synthetic crude generates three times the greenhouse gas emissions of a barrel of conventional oil. Tar sands crude has been the source of significant controversy on both sides of the border. The U.S. Conference of Mayors and United States 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 tar sands refining, such as the BP expansion in Whiting, IN. More information is available at www.oilsandswatch.org
Birds of the Boreal
The report identifies a variety of species threatened by tar sands extraction and refining, including whooping cranes, buffleheads, Bohemian waxwings, Canada and blackpoll warblers, white-throated sparrows, goldeneyes, lesser scaups, and a variety of jays. More information is available at www.borealbirds.org/