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Oilsands Bird Deaths Get Way More Attention Than They Deserve

It's just plain crazy to let "I-hate-oilsands" activists frame our national energy agenda based on an immaterial number of bird deaths.

11/28/2017 14:34 EST | Updated 11/28/2017 15:03 EST
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A few months back, the latest story of bird deaths in the oilsands went national. Just over 100 birds had died at the Fort Hills oilsands mine operated by Suncor. According to The Canadian Press, the mine was not yet operating, but bird-deterrent systems (including cannons, radar scanners, and scarecrows) were functioning. Mystified by the event, Suncor began its own investigation.

In addition, the Alberta Energy Regulator jumped in to advise it would send an inspector to the site. Likewise, the provincial government promised to carefully consider the report to see if additional actions would be needed to prevent further incidents. The premier even chose to comment on the matter outside the legislature.

To all of which I say, please stop. Please stop and think.

Please stop for a moment and put this story into a broader perspective. According to data I could find online, in the U.S. alone, somewhere between one and three billion birds are killed every yearby feral cats. That doesn't include indiscriminate bird deaths by wind turbines, building windows, vehicles, power lines, communication towers, or agricultural chemicals — not to mention hunting. This fall, an unlucky peacock even earned headlines at the Calgary Zoo after bolting from a winter roundup and flying into the lion enclosure, thereby meeting an untimely end.

Of course, no one wants to see these or any birds die unnecessarily. Companies do work diligently to protect all facilities from harming wildlife — especially birds.

It's not news that billions of birds are killed annually in a wide variety of ways. Nobody really cares. But it's BIG news when we're agonizing over 100 birds dying in a tailings pond in northern Alberta? Of course, no one wants to see these or any birds die unnecessarily. Companies do work diligently to protect all facilities from harming wildlife — especially birds. This compliance costs tens of millions every year, not including enormous legal bills. Mistakes and accidents will happen. And when they do, companies and regulators investigate, and do their best to ensure these random unintended events don't happen again.

But that's not enough. Why? Because some environmentalists want to turn the deaths of these birds into something much greater. I am passionate about protecting our environment and I do respect others who have different views about how best to protect the environment we all share. However, unless we are going to do a daily count of bird deaths across North America, I don't need to hear about a few birds that are dying in tailings ponds in a remote part of northern Alberta. And frankly, neither does anyone except those responsible for compliance. It's not news.

Yes, we're empathetic as a society. As is our energy industry. No, we don't want to kill innocent birds (except a few for sport and food). But it's just plain crazy to let "I-hate-oilsands" activists frame our national energy agenda based on an immaterial number of bird deaths. These deaths in no way impugn the Canadian energy industry's exemplary environmental stewardship record. Yet these stories get inflammatory national headlines and undue political attention.

It's time to stop.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Scarecrows float in a Suncor oil sands tailings pond, to keep birds from landing, in Fort McMurray Alta., on Monday, June 13, 2017. Tailings ponds are where the waterborne refuse material is pumped into a pond to allow the sedimentation of solids from the water.

One way is to apply critical thinking to the unintended bird deaths and let industry respond in accordance with government regulation. But another recently occurred to me: one of the easy solutions to the tailings pond/bird death controversies is to encourage the province to simply hire summer students and the like armed with hunting licenses and shotguns to just shoot the birds when they fly near tailings ponds. That way, their deaths will be deemed sport and the energy companies can't be blamed. Yes, I am drizzling sarcasm all over this issue. But that's how ridiculous this situation has become. Imagine how far the tens of millions wasted on legal wrangling over birds and tailings ponds could go in alleviating our real issues of homelessness and mental wellness.

As the world becomes more polarized with increasingly onerous standards of care on Canada's energy companies, here's a suggestion. Let's be willing to listen to the issues around resource development respectfully, and rationally respond to concerns based on the facts — while honestly assessing their relative severity, and refusing to get derailed by extremist positions. Let's give due credit to Canada's energy and other industries — which have for years developed our most valuable resources responsibly, sustainably and safely. Finally, let's close the bird file for good, and get on with a fair, responsible, and collaborative national energy strategy that reflects the interests of all Canadians.

Anything less is for the birds.

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