Canada caught on its own tar baby. Tar sand investments now a dead duck?

As one Canadian newspaper put it. Ducks in Alberta died a crude death.
Written by Harry Fuller, Contributor

As one Canadian newspaper put it. Ducks in Alberta died a crude death. One of the species of ducks that died on a pond filled with crude oil polluted water: Bufflehead. Here's a picture of a gorgeous male Bufflehead in fine fettle.

Photo by Len Blumin.

Most of the ducks who died in the tar sands "tailings pond" sank beneath the surface. "Tailings pond" is oil industry terminology for a large body of water polluted with crude oil. These ponds are just one of the many, necessary environmental costs of removing crude oil from Canada's tar sands.

This story of the dead ducks in Alberta is not happy news for Big Oil and its political supporters. Just this week Alberta officials were in Washington D.C. trying to stop any U.S. law that might prevent Canada from exporting its oil sand products to this country. Canada is now the #1 oil importer to the U.S. Here's how one Canadian paper described this week's events: "The timing couldn't be worse for the Alberta government, which wrapped up a mission to Washington yesterday aimed at promoting the province as having environmentally responsible policies in the oil sands. "At the same time, the province faced a renewed barrage of questions about its plan to spend $25-million on a public-relations campaign designed partly to dispel myths about the oil sands. 'Twenty-five million dollars is well spent in ensuring that we protect the integrity of this province,' [Alberta's Province] Premier Ed Stelmach told the legislature. "The incident is also a blow to the image of Syncrude, which produces about 350,000 barrels per day from the oil sands, but has never had an incident like this."

That last sentence may be a bit ingenuous. We don't know of any previous incidents. This one was apparently NOT reported by the company either but a tipster and perhaps some company employees upset at the dead ducks informed the provincial government. It may never be known how many ducks died as it's unlikely they can drain the pond to recover the bodies. And dead ducks will not float to the surface of a oil-laden pond. FOLLOW THE MONEY

The extraction of crude oil from Canada's tar sands is a classic case of market forces vs. environmental concerns. Sometimes both sides can be compromised and "progress" and profit can roll ahead. This does not seem to be true in this situation. Here's the environmental cost of tar sand extraction according to one Canadian website: "It also destroys the land. Huge areas of the boreal forest ecosystem have been felled and the underlying peat bogs cleared away to expose the sands. At the end of the processing there is nothing but a ‘toxic moonscape’ of earthworks, ponds, and 80 foot high piles of pure sulphur. 5,000 hectares have been destroyed already, and David Schindler of the University of Alberta estimates that in ten years time they will have cleared an area the size of Florida."

Think of this as strip mining for oil. With lots of big, polluted ponds and sulphurous hillocks left behind after the oil companies have collected their profits and we've all enjoyed the gasoline use.

If political timing was bad for Alberta and Canada's oiled politicians, it's even worse for Syncrude. The dead ducks may cost them a $1 million fine, in valuable Canadian dollars. Worse yet, tar sand mining is expensive work. Constant capital is needed, along with willing buyers of the oil output. Just this week it looked like one of their competitiors in the tar sands world was going to get a huge investment from European oil giant, Total. How costly to mine the crude oil in Canada? Estimates are as high as $25 per barrel extraction costs, compared to about $1 in traditional oil fields like Texas or Saudi. With crude now around $120 per barrel, depending on the global market forces, $25 becomes a steep but potentially economically-wise investment. CANADA HAS BEEN HERE BEFORE

The dead duck debacle resonates across Canada where seal slaughter has been an on-going battle for decades between the seal fur business and animal lovers. Now it looks like years of protest and lobbying is beginning to hurt the seal fur business as imports of such products from Canada are being outlawed by several countries. Result: prices for Canadian seal furs are dropping annually. Don't expect prices for Canadian oil, regardless of its source, to diminish. The global oil market doesn't care about the ecological, political or human costs of the oil supply. Even if the U.S. banned crude or products from Canada's oil sands, the stuff would be shipped to China at some minimal loss of profit.

Both the tar sands and the seal fur industry are microcosms of the on-going battle between the Milton Friedman school of economics and environmental preservationists. Between free market supporters and those who think perhaps a duck is worth more than a barrel of crude. Between those who see the planet as a source of resource and profit, and those who see humans as part of the earth with the power and responsibility to not destroy. Between those who worry about global warming or species extinctions, and the Social Darwinist approach: let the ducks beware. Who needs a Bufflehead anyway?

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