I’m writing about the duck deaths at the Syncrude tailings pit earlier this week not because I’ve dug out any news of my own, or have any noteworth comments, but because I’d like to help spread the news of this incident in particular and the tar sands in general beyond Alberta’s borders, especially to the U.S. The New York Times ran the story yesterday. And for the sake of my own province, I’d like to see some leadership that includes the generous use of courage, brains, and heart.
Yesterday I wrote about the sad and worrisome incident of several hundred migratory ducks killed when they landed Monday on one of Syncrude’s tailing pits in northern Alberta; the number of ducks hasn’t been confirmed because Syncrude isn’t allowing reporters near the site, and Alberta Environment hasn’t seen fit to release any photographs, video, or other reports from the site. In fact, Alberta’s government is now facing accusations of a cover-up for refusing to release photos of the dead ducks. In that post, I mentioned the conservative provincial government’s new $25 million PR campaign to convince the rest of the world in general, and the US in particular, that Alberta’s tar sands are clean and the province looks after the environment well.
The lesson here for future governments is that you can save yourselves, and your taxpayers, a bundle of money by practicing sound environmental stewardship instead of paying PR firms and ad agencies to magic up green smoke and mirrors to cover up such doozies as this:
- Yesterday, Premier Ed Stelmach showed evidence of a tin ear when he compared the deaths of the several hundred ducks to the 30,000 birds killed annually by wind turbines each year in the United States*. This, tinnily enough, followed serious and conscientious comments by Prime Minister Stephen Harper (in Edmonton to open a new heart institute): “It’s obviously a terrible tragedy and I think we and a lot of people are upset about it.” The PM added, “We expect better, to be quite honest. This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening” and “It’s not going to do anybody’s image any good. It is important that we have a good environmental record and a good environmental image.” (Notice that the PM said “good record” before “good image”.) Federal Environment Minister John Baird in Ottawa yesterday echoed his boss: “Whenever we have an economic activity, we’ve got to do it in an environmentally friendly way. Something went wrong here. I’m not happy about it and I want to get to the bottom of it. I want to hold those that are responsible to account and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” I don’t expect flawless follow-through — I’m not really one to vote Conservative — but I do find his understanding of the situation reassuring.
- Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner took on the issue of not releasing photographs of the dead ducks or the tailing pit where they died by saying, “The incident took place on a private property.” Minister Renner has also been skating around whether Syncrude could be charged or fined for failing to report the incident when it happened; as noted, it was an anonymous tip to a Fish & Wildlife office that came in first, bringing the duck deaths to light. As the Minister told reporters yesterday, “The issue of reporting, quite frankly, is irrelevant.” Not only is reporting highly relevant, but it occurs to me that any straw-stuffed heads that fail to see the relevance should roll. What’s particularly relevant is that the government of Alberta has allowed a system of self-regulation, self-monitoring, and voluntary reporting for the energy industry, much like putting the proverbial fox in charge of the chicken coop. Minister Renner claimed the other day that the self-reporting system has worked well so far, adding, “There is an auditing process, but there are simply not enough wildlife officers, environment officers to be monitoring every operation throughout the entire province 365 days a year.” As the writers at the blog Alberta: Get Rich or Die Trying noted in a post earlier this week,
“Perhaps, some of the $25 million from Alberta’s newly-minted greenwashing campaign should be redirected towards this shortage? We could try actually enforcing our environmental standards, and cleaning up, investigating and ultimately preventing these types of ecological disasters in the first place.”
Speaking of fines, I wrote yesterday Syncrude could face penalties of up to $1 million for failing comply with Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act requirements for a comprehensive bird deterrent program for all tailings ponds. This morning I heard on the radio that Syncrude’s first quarter profits for 2008 reached almost $300 million. And yesterday Imperial Oil, which owns 25 percent of Syncrude, announced that net income for the first quarter of 2008 is $681 million. Chump change indeed.
The Calgary Herald has a solid, comprehensive account of the latest news here, and also a good article in today’s paper, “Syncrude ducks critics at its peril”. And because this problem of pollution in Alberta is a long-standing one, you might want to read this 1999 article from New Internationalist, and this 1999 article, “The Farmer vs. the Oilpatch” by Roger Epp for the Parkland Institute of the University of Alberta.
A few more words to those who would be wise:
To politicians of any stripe: Avoid jumping the gun and tempting the fates with the phrase “Mission Accomplished”. It didn’t work for George Bush and it didn’t work for Alberta Deputy Premier Ron Stevens who, in a bit of bad timing, traveled this week to Washington, DC, to convince American lawmakers of Alberta’s “environmental stewardship” (there’s that pesky phrase again.
To the Alberta Liberal, NDP, and Green parties, in official and unofficial opposition: You’ve just been handed a golden opportunity on a silver platter. Please, please, make the most of this, unlike your collective efforts earlier this year during the election campaign.
And most importantly: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
* Premier Stelmach might be interested to read what Taber Allison, Massachusetts Audubon Society Vice President for Conservation Science and recent appointee to the Wind Turbine Guidelines Advisory Committee to advise the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on mitigation measures to minimize impacts to wildlife, has to say last fall about bird deaths from wind turbines. Well, probably other than advice on not belittling the week’s tragic event and trying to change the subject. According to Mr. Allison,
“(Climate change) is perhaps the biggest conundrum, especially when we talk in terms of wind energy development,” said Allison. …
“All of this, the rise in carbon dioxide levels, is directly attributed to our use of fossil fuels,” said Allison.
He said fossil fuels not only raise carbon dioxide levels, but their production, including such methods as mountain-top mining, which typically encompasses between 1,0000 and 4,000 acres of ridgeline, also contribute to habitat loss.
Buildings and windows are the biggest killers of birds, causing nearly one billion deaths annually, while wind turbine collisions kill between 10,000 and 40,000 birds annually, measured at three birds per megawatt installed capacity annually, according to a National Academy of Sciences report.
There have been recorded instances of 30,000 birds killed in one night at a communications tower, Allison said.
“On the one hand you might look at that and say, ‘Well, the impact of collision and wind turbines is negligible relative to all sources of impact.’ Then you’ll also hear people say it’s cumulative impact that matters.”
Possibly more at danger from the turbines are bats, according to Allison. They seem to be attracted to wind turbines, possibly by the whooshing sound or because they don’t see very well and think the turbines are trees.
“In my opinion, it’s a more serious concern than potential bird mortality because of this potential attraction factor,” he said. “Mortality seems to be much higher and we know less about bats other than that they are long-lived and have low reproduction rates.”
In the end, Allison’s recommendation was to reduce energy consumption. “You can’t use energy without having an environmental impact,” he said. [Emphasis mine]