Syncrude pleads not guilty over 2008 duck deaths

* More than 1,600 ducks died in oil sands toxic waste pond

* Syncrude declines to outline reasons for plea

* Case set to go to trial March 1, 2010 (Adds Greenpeace, company comments)

CALGARY, Alberta, Sept 14 (Reuters) - Syncrude Canada Ltd pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges in the deaths of more than 1,600 ducks in a toxic waste pond in 2008, a case that heightened international concern about the environmental impact of developing Canada's vast oil sands.

After a brief court appearance in St. Albert, Alberta, just outside Edmonton, Syncrude officials declined to divulge details of the company's defense in the high-profile case, in which the waterfowl got coated in oil and sank.

Syncrude, the largest oil sands miner and processor, faces charges under Canada's Migratory Birds Convention Act and Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. The trial is slated to begin March 1 in Alberta Provincial Court.

Syncrude Chief Executive Tom Katinas said he would not explain the decision to plead not guilty "out of respect for the judicial system".

"We will provide our reasons in court, and we ask Canadians for their patience as we go through this legal process," he said in a statement.

The birds were killed in April 2008, when a snowstorm delayed deployment of bird-deterring sound cannons at Syncrude's tailings pond. Other lakes in the region were still frozen, leaving the migrating flock with no other option for setting down, the company has said.

Syncrude, a joint venture of several international oil companies, initially said 500 ducks were killed. But last March it said the number was more than triple that.

Alberta's oil sands represent the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East, and the tar-like crude is seen as an important source of secure energy for the United States.

Environmentalists argue that multibillion-dollar oil sands mining developments harm wildlife, land, air and water.

Green groups say the Syncrude case shows governments are not doing enough to restrict the spread of tailings ponds, which are filled with water, clay and some oily residue from the oil sands extraction process.

"For us, the real issue here is about powerful oil companies and weak politicians," said Bruce Cox, executive director of Greenpeace Canada. "The pressure's got to be on our elected officials to get serious about the environmental degradation that is happening in the tar sands."

Syncrude reiterated it is sorry about the incident and said it had made improvements to its waterfowl protection program.

"Our position on what happened hasn't changed. We feel horrible that this occurred and we've put a lot of resources and time into implementing changes to help prevent it from happening again," Syncrude spokesman Alain Moore said.

Greenpeace released a report Monday that charges, among other things, that the oil sands have a much higher carbon footprint than any other commercial oil product, and if development continues unabated could produce more greenhouse gases than Austria, Portugal, Ireland or Denmark.

The report, called "Dirty Oil: How the tar sands are fueling the global climate crisis", by Alberta author Andrew Nikiforuk, also says growing revenue from the oil sands has turned Ottawa into a "carbon bully" that fights against moves to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

In July, the Alberta Energy Research Institute, a think tank funded by the Alberta government, released its own report saying oil sands' carbon emissions were similar to many other oil sources when all parts of its production, transportation and use are factored in.

Syncrude's partners include Canadian Oil Sands Trust


, Imperial Oil Ltd


, Suncor Energy Inc


, Nexen Inc


, ConocoPhillips


Murphy Oil Ltd


and Nippon Oil Corp


unit Mocal Energy. (Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; editing by Peter Galloway)