Ducks and Energy

Development of new energy sources could have significant impacts on North America‚Äôs waterfowl.

By Jim Ringelman, Ph.D.

How quickly things change. A year ago, gasoline prices were soaring and corn ethanol plants were the darling of many investors. Today, fuel prices are among the least of our financial concerns, and some investors are beginning to avoid ethanol plants like mallards flaring from a bad decoy spread. But taking the long view, these swings in energy-related consumer prices and business investments are just distractions from the constant, inexorable increase in the world’s hunger for energy. Between now and 2030, world energy demand is projected to increase by 45 percent. What will be the implications for ducks?

It’s a complex question dependent on a host of political and economic factors. Yet some things seem clear. Energy demand will continue to grow. The United States will move toward greater energy independence. Technological breakthroughs will create new energy sources or make current sources more economically viable. And last but not least, there will be a more complete accounting of the environmental costs of energy generation and use, which will create new challenges and opportunities for waterfowl conservationists.

Energy Extraction

Not all forms of energy extraction have negative impacts on waterfowl populations on a continental level. Coal mining and nuclear power generation, for example, may be unsightly and have local environmental impacts, but they often don’t significantly affect waterfowl habitats at large scales. This is fortunate, as these energy sources provide 25 percent and 6 percent of the world’s energy, respectively. Nevertheless, their impacts bear watching as small-scale habitat alterations can affect large numbers of birds in migration, wintering, and molting areas. In addition, changes in water quality and other “downstream” effects can have surprisingly broad impacts on wetlands and waterfowl habitat in large watersheds.

Other forms of energy extraction can have both positive and negative impacts on waterfowl habitat. Hydroelectric dams can inundate floodplain wetlands and alter natural river flows, reducing the number of oxbows and backwater wetlands available to ducks. At the same time, reservoirs created by hydroelectric dams can provide feeding and roosting habitat for waterfowl as well as irrigation water for growing grain crops eaten by field-feeding ducks and geese. In addition, tailwater ponds, warm-water sloughs, and other wetlands supplied by irrigation can partially mitigate the loss of natural wetlands.

Production of ethanol and other biofuels is also a double-edged sword for ducks. Ethanol produced from corn has contributed to increases in commodity prices that can drive conversion of grassland to cropland. In the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), grassland provides vital nesting cover for waterfowl, and the loss of this habitat results in reduced duck populations. In addition, runoff from cornfields can degrade adjacent wetlands by overloading them with nitrogen and phosphorous. Lastly, corn ethanol production requires three to four gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol that is produced, and this doesn’t include water used for crop irrigation.

In Canada, the growing season in much of the PPR is too short for corn production, so winter wheat is being used to make ethanol. This crop, which is usually planted directly into residual stubble and left relatively undisturbed in spring, provides more secure nesting cover for ducks, including pintails. As a result, DU and partners are working with farmers to expand the acreage of winter wheat grown in the PPR. 

Ducks may also benefit from the use of “biomass crops” like switchgrass for ethanol production, provided these crops are managed in a way that meets the needs of nesting ducks. The devil is in the details. To benefit waterfowl, biomass crops must be grown near wetlands that attract breeding pairs, harvested after nesting ducks have hatched their broods, and cut high enough during harvest that sufficient residual vegetation is left for nesting birds to use the following spring. DU biologists are presently working with industry leaders to develop “best management practices” for biomass energy crops that will help maximize potential benefits for nesting waterfowl.

Concerns about the Unknown

The impacts other types of energy production will have on waterfowl populations have yet to be determined. Wind power certainly falls in this category. The potential effects of wind farms are likely to be site specific and dependent on the type of technology used. Past research examining bird mortality from small, densely packed wind generators mounted on lattice towers has little relevance to the large, widely spaced wind turbines being built today on the Great Plains. And offshore wind farms that could impact migrating and wintering sea ducks are clearly different than wind-power developments in the heart of the PPR. One thing we do know is that new transmission lines will be needed to move electricity from wind farms to consumers. Ducks and other birds inevitably fly into power lines, so it stands to reason that when more power lines are built, duck mortality will increase. Will that result in population-level effects on waterfowl? The answer depends on how many lines are built and where they are located.

Oil, the single biggest source of the world’s energy, is another issue altogether. New drilling techniques and transportation systems are environmentally safer than ever. But other impacts do occur. In the exploratory phase, seismic lines crisscross sensitive ecosystems like the western boreal forest, fragmenting the landscape and altering wetland hydrology. During the extraction phase, construction of drilling pads and access roads compounds these impacts. And while industry strives to make oil extraction and transport as safe as possible, accidents can still occur. How would a failure of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, now showing its age after 32 years, affect vital duck breeding habitat in the state? Will the environmental footprint of oil facilities on Alaska’s North Slope be enough to displace breeding waterfowl there? And would new offshore drilling result in oil spills that could damage coastal wetlands used by millions of wintering ducks? The answers are unknown, but the risks are real.

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.

Energy Use

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.

In addition, sea levels could rise as glaciers melt and warm ocean waters expand. This would inundate bays and coastal marshes vital to waterfowl, especially during the winter. Wedged between the ocean and physical barriers like sea walls, roads, and cities, these marshes have nowhere to “migrate” and would simply disappear. The Chenier Plain marshes of Louisiana, which support more than 1.3 million waterfowl today, would no longer support significant numbers of waterfowl if the rising Gulf of Mexico swallows the marshes. Similarly, Chesapeake Bay could lose 45 percent of its current waterfowl habitat to sea-level rise in the future.

Is There a Silver Lining?

As society more fully accounts for the environmental costs of energy extraction and production, new opportunities may emerge for waterfowl conservation. A “cap and trade” system, aimed at reducing GHG emissions, bears watching. The cap—a limit on emissions—would come with associated GHG “allowances” held by companies. If the initial allowances are sold by auction, which is one possibility, sales will generate an estimated $645 billion from 2012 to 2019. While there is much debate about how this money should be used, a portion of the revenue could be allocated for helping wildlife adapt to climate change.

These “adaptation funds” could be used for conservation projects that not only help ducks cope with climate change but also address broader societal needs. For example, rebuilding Gulf Coast marshes will also help buffer coastal communities against hurricanes. Securing highly diverse native prairie will not only ensure duck nesting habitat for the future but also help ranchers and grass-based agriculture cope with more severe and frequent droughts.

Another possible dimension to cap and trade legislation is “offset credits” that can be bought and sold to help companies meet their emission obligations. Biological offsets are derived from the ability of plants to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store carbon in their roots, leaves, and wood. DU can create offset credits that benefit ducks and the atmosphere by replanting grasslands and bottomland hardwood trees, protecting and restoring pothole wetlands, and securing easements that prohibit plowing of native prairie. When grasslands are plowed, carbon stored in the soil is released into the atmosphere as CO2. Worldwide, 20 percent of global CO2 emissions are created by land conversion, so it’s only natural that avoiding such destruction and restoring wildlife habitat should be part of the climate-change solution.

If we are going to ensure a bright future for waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited must engage in discussions about our energy future and capitalize on emerging opportunities. As we have always done, DU will rely on science to identify the real threats and develop pragmatic solutions that will lead to clean new energy sources and healthy duck populations.

Dr. Jim Ringelman is a director of conservation programs at DU's Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck, N.D.