Alberta oil sands’ impact on wildlife

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Source: GLOBE Foundation

Opportunities exist for U.S. companies that can effectively prevent animal deaths on Alberta oil sands sites by providing products and in wildlife management, deterrence, monitoring, and consulting. While oil producer Syncrude stands trial in connection of the deaths of 1,606 migratory waterfowl in 2008, recent government documents reveal that dozens of other animals have died on oil sands sites between 2000 and 2008, adding to what some have called a 'public relations hell.'

Oil sands producers have been experiencing increased criticism in recent years from special interest groups, media and a concerned public. The Alberta government is also under pressure to more effectively enforce environmental regulatory compliance. Consequently, the industry and the Government of Alberta have been investing more heavily in programs and technology that reduce the oil sands' impact on wildlife.

Recent documents reveal that at least 164 other animals were reported to have died on oil sands sites between 2000 and 2008, including 27 bears, 67 deer, 31 foxes, and 21 coyotes. The information did not indicate specific causes of death, but it listed possible reasons including drowning, oiling from tailings, animals hitting structure or vehicles, electrocution, euthanasia of problem wildlife and natural causes. The documents were released during a nine-week trial charging oil producer Syncrude on provincial and federal charges in which Syncrude could face fines of up to $1 million. Syncrude's bird deterrence technology reportedly failed to prevent waterfowl from landing in its toxic Aurora tailings pond in April 2008.

  • Oil sands impact on wildlife includes:
  • Loss of habitat
  • Loss of migration corridors
  • Increased hunting
  • Disturbance from activity and noise
  • Alteration to the health of the habitat

Despite a number of measures that are currently in place to mitigate these issues, industry and government still look for new technologies, and long-term solutions.

Market Demand

Alberta's oil sands underlie 54,132 square miles of land in the Athabasca, Cold Lake and Peace River areas in northern Alberta and contain the second largest oil reserves in the world. The development of this resource is certain to grow in the 21st century and correspondingly, the impact on the environment will increase. Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert has stated that he would 'prefer there were no impact at all but feels government and industry is working hard to keep the impact minimal.'

As such, there is considerable market demand in Alberta for products and services in wildlife management, deterrence, monitoring, and consulting. There is also a strong foreseeable market demand in the long-term, as the Alberta government and oil sands developments are continually looking for new technology and improved services.

According to industry representatives and Alberta Environment spokespeople, oil and gas companies make efforts to protect wildlife with 'wildlife mitigation strategies.' These strategies are tailored to each specific oil sands development as part of the process of gaining operating approval. Contracting and sub-contracting opportunities exist where new wildlife mitigation strategies can better protect wildlife. An example of a progressive wildlife mitigation strategy is Shell Canada's implementation of BirdAvert, a radar-activated on-demand bird deterrence system, patented by an American technology firm.

The system detects any birds near a tailings pond and a radio signal is used to activate several deterrents (cannon sounds, strobe lights, scarecrows, predator simulators, etc.). The on-demand technology of BirdAvert is an advance over traditional deterrent methods that fire cannons randomly over a given time interval. The effectiveness of these traditional methods declines over time because birds tend to habituate to deterrent stimuli.

Despite their current efficacy, many wildlife mitigation strategies, like the one described above, are not long-term solutions. The industry is therefore committed to land reclamation, returning productivity capacity to disturbed oil sands landscapes. There are numerous opportunities and much anticipated growth in this area.

Best Prospects

Companies in the United States that have products or services related to wildlife management, deterrence, monitoring, and consulting have vast opportunities to enter the Canadian oil sands market. Some areas of innovation and development to reduce the disturbance from mining, in situ, and facility sites include:

  • Avoidance of key habitat and protected areas
  • Bird deterrents in tailings ponds (netting, human hazing, chemical deterrents, automated hazing, radar-controlled hazing, and computer-assisted radar hazing)
  • Construction and maintenance of raised pipelines to allow access below pipelines
  • Construction and maintenance of wildlife movement corridors
  • Construction and maintenance of wildlife bridge crossings of pipelines
  • Controlled hunting, trapping and relocating
  • Education programs for oil sands employees on wildlife mitigation
  • Land reclamation
  • Line of sight considerations
  • Minimized seismic line width
  • Noise reduction technology
  • Tailings reduction technology
  • Waste management
  • Wildlife monitoring programs and technology

Improvements to existing wildlife mitigation strategies are also valuable to oil sands operations. Bird deterrent systems, for instance, are constantly upgraded to improve detection range ability, noise reduction, and efficacy.

Since wildlife mitigation strategies are tailored to each specific oil sands development, interested companies should approach developers during operating approval stages. A list of oil sands projects and developers can be found at www.oilsandsdevelopers.ca/index.php/test-project-table/.

Alternatively, companies may approach the Government of Alberta, oil sands research institutes, and special interest groups.

Market Issues and Obstacles

Some issues and obstacles that companies should consider when entering into the Canadian industry are:

  • Cost savings for developers and government (taking into account the cost of incumbent technologies)
  • Maintenance costs and Installation costs, and the differential cost between the two
  • Maintenance risks and requirements (e.g. amount of exposure to toxic substances)
  • Product reliability and functioning in problematic weather conditions

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