Dead ducks put Canada oil sands impact into focus

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada and the energy-rich province of Alberta are finding that nothing stains an oil supplier’s environmental image, or emboldens its critics, like several hundred dead ducks.

A worker rides his bike near Syncrude's $7.5 million expansion mine north of Fort McMurray, Alberta May 24, 2006. REUTERS/Todd Korol

With 500 waterfowl killed in oily wastewater at the country’s largest oil sands plant this week, government and industry now face a new struggle to convince the world they are not just paying lip service to cleaning up operations.

The stakes are high as a new administration takes power next year in the United States -- Canada’s biggest market -- amid growing environmental concern among Americans.

“A duck covered in oil -- it’s the new symbol of the province of Alberta,” said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal College in Calgary.

The image, flashed on televisions and computer screens all week, oversimplifies the environmental impact of the huge oil sands development and ignores what’s being done to lessen it.

“But it’s still a symbol and will be used to great effect,” Brownsey said. “And it represents more than that: I don’t think the province or the oil industry understands the depth of feeling about environmental issues such as this. They just don’t grasp it.”

In some ways, Canada’s oil industry is a victim of its own success in selling the United States on the oil sands as a safe, reliable alternative to crude imports from OPEC producers as U.S. drivers face ever-rising pump prices.

Companies are pouring more than $100 billion into oil sands projects to nearly triple output to 3 million barrels a day by 2015. But with that has come intense scrutiny from environment groups and politicians about the impact on air, land, water native communities.

Federal and provincial agencies have launched an investigation into the incident, in which the ducks touched down on a tailings pond at the Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil sands plant north of Fort McMurray and got coated with sludge.

Migrating birds are normally scared away from the ponds by sound-cannons that simulate gunfire. Syncrude officials have said a spring snowstorm delayed deployment of the system.

Fatalities in such numbers had not happened in 30 years of operation, Syncrude said.

Jeff Wells, a Maine-based scientist with the Boreal Songbird Initiative, an environmental group, said research shows that smaller numbers of birds die each year, however.

For Alberta, now seen has having the largest oil deposits outside Saudi Arabia, the timing could not have been worse.

It has faced a growing chorus of environmentalists who decry the impact of what they term “dirty oil.”

Last year, U.S. lawmakers startled Alberta with legislation aimed at banning the federal government from using fuel sources with higher carbon content than traditional supply, putting oil sands use by big buyers like the military in question.


Premier Ed Stelmach dispatched his deputy to Washington early this week to spread the message that Alberta is a secure supplier intent on employing the cleanest methods available.

In his final blog posting for the trip, Deputy Premier Ron Stevens said he met only a few polite environmentalists. He wrote he did not need to defend the ecological record to media, only explain how Alberta could help meet U.S. energy demand.

“Mission Accomplished!” he declared.

Then reports of the dead ducks surfaced. And just as for President George W. Bush when he made the same declaration after Baghdad fell in 2003, the mission was not over.

The blog has been pulled, although Stevens’s spokesman said that is only because his two-day trip had ended.

Stelmach, along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the chief executive of Imperial Oil Ltd IMO.TO, part-owner of Syncrude, have all called the incident tragic and pledged to get to the bottom of it.

Stelmach stressed on Friday it was an isolated incident that masks his government’s strides in passing legislation to limit greenhouse gases from oil sands projects and fostering development of environmental technology.

The oil sands, meanwhile, allow Alberta to improve health care, education and other social services, he said.

“We want to know why it happened,” he told reporters. “But there are rules and very strict conditions and licenses put in place, but someone or something failed and we’ll find it.”

Editing by Rob Wilson