Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Approximately 500 migratory ducks are dead or dying in Alberta Canada because an oilsands company did not prevent them from landing on a manmade lake filled with toxic sludge. The offending company, Syncrude Canada Ltd., neglected to use propane-fueled noise-making cannons to scare the ducks away from the toxic ponds, as required by law. Further, they claim that ice surrounding the lake is preventing rescue efforts.

“This is the first time a large flock of birds has landed on a settling basin in Syncrude’s 30 years of operation,” the Syncrude press release stated, attempting to portray this incident as a freak accident.

Syncrude is reportedly working with Alberta Fish and Wildlife in hopes of rescuing some of the birds. However, it is unlikely that any of the remaining ducks will survive because they dive under the toxic oil-covered water when approached by their would-be rescuers, making recovery nearly impossible, according to Environment Minister Rob Renner.

“This is a tragedy and this is unacceptable and we’re going to do everything within our power to find out why it occurred and more importantly, to prevent it from occurring again,” Renner said.

Syncrude appears to be launching their own investigation, too.

“Our CEO is taking a personal commitment to lead this investigation team because it’s definitely a top priority at Syncrude,” claimed Syncrude spokesman Alain Moore.

Unfortunately, this statement is less than truthful because Syncrude officials did not report the incident to the government as they are required to do. Instead, the government was alerted by “an anonymous tipster” who called Monday night.

Additionally, the President and CEO of Syncrude, Tom Katinas, waited 24 hours before speaking to the press about this incident.

“If something has happened of this sort, then we feel that the company is obligated to report to the minister of the environment,” Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach pointed out. “It’s a condition of the licence.”

“As a government we mean business,” he continued. “When we issue a licence and there are certain conditions, the company has to make sure they conform to the licence.

“And deliver on the conditions of the licence,” the premier concluded.

Alberta Environment warned that fines of up to $987,000 could be levied against Syncrude if they did not have equipment in operation to scare birds away from the toxic pond. But even if such fines are levied (doubtful), this sum of money is only a trivial sum when compared to Syncrude’s total earnings, which are in the billions of dollars (in 2005, which is the last earnings statement that I could find).

“We’re investigating the incident and cooperating with Alberta government officials to determine how we can prevent a similar incident in the future,” said Katinas, conveniently overlooking the fact that they already know how to prevent such an incident; using noisemaking devices. Katinas then whined to the press that “the extreme winter weather conditions in the region” prevented Syncrude from activating the noisemakers, as required. As if it has never been cold and snowy in northeastern Alberta before.

Environment Minister Renner refused to speculate on whether his department’s investigation would take into account that heavy snowfall prevented the noise-making cannons from being deployed.

Interestingly, at the very same time that Syncrude’s incompetence and gross indifference were exposed by a tipster, Alberta Deputy Premier Ron Stevens is in Washington DC trying to convince congress that Alberta’s oilsands projects are being exploited in an “environmentally sustainable manner.” At the same time, environmental groups protest that the oilsands in northeastern Alberta produce “dirty oil” and they are developed at a huge cost to the environment, as this incident demonstrates.

Of course, congress has to consider the insatiable American appetite for more (and cheaper) oil. Industry officials estimate the region could yield as much as 175 billion barrels of oil, making Canada second only to Saudi Arabia in crude oil reserves.

Alberta’s oilsands are a mixture of mixture of sand, water, and extra heavy crude oil, also known as bitumen, a tarlike substance that is mined. After being extracted from these deposits, the bitumen is converted into a synthetic “sweet” oil using a distillation process that uses a lot of water — water that becomes toxic in the process and is dumped into manmade settling ponds, such as the one that the migrating ducks landed on this past Monday.

The Syncrude Project is a joint venture operated by Syncrude Canada Ltd. It is owned by Canadian Oil Sands Limited, ConocoPhillips Oilsands Partnership II, Imperial Oil Resources, Mocal Energy Limited, Murphy Oil Company Ltd., Nexen Oil Sands Partnership, and Petro-Canada Oil and Gas.

I can already hear all those greedy bastards licking their chops.

Sources

CNN (quotes).

CNW group press release (quotes).

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    April 30, 2008

    This is a shame, especially since Syncrude has been especially helpful in helping paleontologists excavate some plesiosaurs and other marine reptiles lately.

  2. #2 rfguy
    April 30, 2008

    I doubt that Syncrude will actually be fined for this; the government in this province is in the back pocket of the oil and gas companies. At least I didn’t vote for them.

    -mark.

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    April 30, 2008

    It might be that the management is genuinely interested in not killing the ducks, and this is a screw-up at a lower level (followed by a cover-up). Hopefully the full fine will be levied, simply because it’s a good way of persuading the company to not buy its cannons from British Rail.

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    April 30, 2008

    Oh, and quacking headline!

  5. #5 Jim
    April 30, 2008

    Excellent! Our kindly northern neighbors will totally screw up large hunks of their real estate to provide (maybe if there really is 174bb up there in the frozen goo) the world with less than 5 years of oil.
    Oil relatively quickly gone, landscape devastation relatively permanent.

  6. #6 Robin O'birder
    April 30, 2008

    I actually think this is a low level screw up at Syncrude and not some conspiracy and cover up. As environmentalists we need to be very careful in how we investigate and report such incidents. We need to have a good look at the situation and find how we can turn Syncrude into an ally and advocate (IMHO they actually do have a corporate conscience and they try to do the right thing) rather than a demonized “enemy”. The greedy bastards do have money – and we need to make sure they use a lot of it to support environmental causes, corporate responsibility and citizenship, and to mitigate and repair environmental damage that their operations cause.

    Over and over again the fringes of the environmental community set out for ruin, revenge, and blame and in the end they seal the deal – making a true enemy instead of finding a way to work with and convert corporations into mighty environmental allies.

    As for landscape devastation being relatively permanent I would agree that up until about 1970 that was often true, and as a society we are left with things like superfund sites to deal with. In the more recent industrial past a large number of the “bad players” in the natural resources business have made huge strides to turn their past mistakes around and to be good citizens. The “green” effect of open and active publicity is really helping with this. Admittedly there are still some real corporate criminals from an environmental standpoint – but they are the exception rather than the rule and they only get away with their actions if they have collaboration from government regulators and an indifferent citizens.

    Of course, make violators pay for their mistakes, but don’t damn them totally – work on making them an ally and you’ve done 1000 times what any fine can generate from the point of environmental causes.

    Working together we can make the world whole again. Blasting our enemies only leaves scars of every kind imaginable.

    Peace

    Rob O’birder

  7. #7 "GrrlScientist"
    April 30, 2008

    yes, robin, you are probably right. however, it is difficult not to be outraged and cynical when confronted with so many examples of corporate greed resulting in permanent environmental damage and destruction. especially when this particular event was not reported to the government by syncrude as required (how long would they have waited if an anonymous tipster didn’t report this first? or was syncrude just so astonishingly neglectful that they simply didn’t know this was happening??). and of course, it’s easy to become cynical after watching government officials stand around while making brash statements like “As a government we mean business” when they actually mean they PROTECT business at the expense of the people and the environment.

    anyway, if syncrude actually DOES take strong proactive and timely action to remedy this situation, and if the government actually does fine them, and then syncrude pays that fine promptly and without making the taxpayers foot the bill in some sneaky underhanded way, then i would be both pleased and extremely surprised.

    and i would write about THAT, too.

    if it happens.

    but seriously, syncrude is big business. big business exists solely to make as much money as possible, regardless of what or who they damage in the process.

  8. #8 Mark
    May 1, 2008

    We need to be sure environmentalists do not use this incident to their advantage. Yes it should be of concern but should not be used as leverage to prevent the United States from utilizing oil obtained in this way.

    Environmentalists are very self centered and have no sense of reality when it comes to economics. They don’t care if the United States’ economy goes down the tubes as long as they feel good about themselves. Yes environmental issues should be taken into account but they need to be balanced with many other issues and cannot be looked at on their own. If we allow this to happen before long our economy will be in shambles.

    If environmentalists are that concerned about how we obtain oil they need to reevaluate their position on nuclear power so we can use it as an alternative energy source while we develop other long-term solutions.

  9. #9 "GrrlScientist"
    May 1, 2008

    nuclear power will never be an acceptable power alternative until we solve the problem of how to SAFELY dispose of nuclear waste. this is a problem that scientists have attempted to address for decades, without success.

    further, in this increasingly polarized world, we also must develop foolproof methods of tracking ALL nuclear materials so they do not fall into the wrong hands. but we have not done this, either.