Deep oil sands development puts boreal species at risk, says impact report
Projected development of Alberta's deep oil sands resources could drive many boreal wildlife species, including caribou, lynx, marten and some forest bird species to local extinction, says a new report by the Pembina Institute and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). The 35-page review is the first to fully quantify the cumulative impact of Alberta's deep oil sands extraction on forests and wildlife.
Although oil sands strip mining near Fort McMurray has been the main focus of attention to date, 80% of Alberta's oil sands reserves are too deep to be mined and must be extracted through in situ techniques. The report, Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Impacts of In Situ Oil Sands Development on Alberta's Boreal Forest, says the provincial government has already leased out more than 35,000 square kilometres of boreal forest for deep oil sands development - an area equal in size to Vancouver Island - with no public discussion and without a plan in place to protect the forest.
"When we began the report, our intention was to highlight industrial best practices as a solution to ecological concerns," said the report's lead author, Dr Rick Schneider, a wildlife ecologist who is conservation director for CPAWS' Edmonton chapter. "But we found that gains through improvements to practices are eliminated by the projected massive increase in development.
"It now seems clear that the only real hope for maintaining biodiversity is to place a moratorium on out of control oil sands lease sales and to implement regional land use planning that limits the pace of development and includes the designation of large wildlife reserves where industrial activities are prohibited."
The authors found that the typical deep oil sands development, comprised of a network of roads, pipelines and well sites, cuts up the forest into small fragments that cannot sustain many wide-ranging species. The study forecasts that companies will clear nearly 300,000 hectares of forest and construct more than 30,000 kilometres of road in the process of developing current leases, leaving 80% of the remaining forest within 250 metres of a road, pipeline or well site.
"If the government doesn't set limits, deep oil sands development will cause even greater deforestation than the massive forest loss associated with oil sands mining," said report co-author Simon Dyer, a wildlife biologist and senior policy analyst with the Pembina Institute.
Both experts are calling on the government to set limits on cumulative industrial impacts. "Providing industry with clear rules about how much disturbance is allowed will encourage them to work together to reduce their collective impacts and to reclaim and restore existing disturbances," said Dyer. "The Muskwa-Kechika plan from northern BC provides a good working example of how zoning land to protect different values and establishing limits on cumulative impact can effectively balance ecological and economic objectives."
More information is available from Simon Dyer at the Pembina Institute, 403/269-3344, ext 104, or Dr Rick Schneider at CPAWS, 780/662.4233.