The extraction of petroleum from the “oil sands” of western Canada has long been a concern to environmentalists. These deposits are the second largest oil reserve in the world, and the minable area covers 1,350 square miles of boreal forest and wetlands. But oil sands give up their treasure grudgingly. In the largest oil sands reserve, the Athabasca deposit, the overlying soil must be removed, the ore crushed, and hot water added in the extraction process. This requires large amounts of natural gas and fresh water diverted from major river systems. After processing, “tailings” containing clay, sand, and water—along with residual oil—are held in vast networks of settling ponds. Migrating waterfowl that stop to rest on these ponds become coated in oil and other toxins and die. In a much publicized incident that occurred last April, 1,600 ducks died in settling ponds in northern Alberta. An even greater concern is that settling ponds will fail, releasing tailings into the Athabasca River system. The Athabasca flows directly into the Peace-Athabasca Delta and eventually into the Mackenzie River Delta, both of which are among North America’s most important waterfowl breeding areas. DU Canada is working with the oil and gas industry on several fronts including research, habitat protection, and mitigation to anticipate and respond to potential waterfowl impacts in these areas in the future.
There is another side to the energy-waterfowl equation that could have even greater impacts on ducks than the effects of energy extraction. When we use some forms of energy, particularly fossil fuels, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other so-called greenhouse gases (GHG) are released into the atmosphere. These gases act like an insulating blanket, trapping radiant heat reflected from the ground and warming the atmosphere. Climate models indicate that warming temperatures will cause shifts in precipitation patterns, more extreme weather events, and significant changes in land use. Ducks could be hit hard by these changes.
Breeding habitat in the PPR and Canada’s boreal forest could also diminish. Climate models predict prairie wetland numbers could decline by up to 90 percent, which would result in an almost 70 percent decrease in the fall flight of ducks. Farther north, the underlying layer of permafrost beneath many boreal wetlands is melting, allowing water to simply drain into the ground. Wetlands of the western boreal forest support 12-15 million breeding waterfowl, and losing even a fraction of these wetlands would impact continental duck populations.