Expanding oil sands mine threatens ancient peatland and millions of birds

October 16, 2023
By: cpawsstaff

Expanding oil sands mine threatens ancient peatland and millions of birds

Everything you need to know about the Fort Hills oil sands mine and the plan to excavate the mine’s third open pit in the McClelland Lake wetland complex. The expansion will introduce 60 square kilometers of new tailings ponds on the landscape.

Expanding oil sands mine threatens ancient peatland and millions of birds

The expansion of the Fort Hills mine will destroy half of a globally unique wetland complex and risks the lives of migratory birds

About the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex (MLWC)

Surrounded in the midst of toxic tailings ponds in northern Alberta lies a special refuge – the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex, a large wetland that took around 10,000 years to form. The McClelland Lake Wetland Complex acts as a refuge for a vast representation of plants and animals, including migratory birds and the endangered woodland caribou.  

Each spring, millions of migratory birds make their way north to the boreal forest to locate mosaics of wetlands and lakes that act as critical breeding grounds and stopover sites. All four major bird flyways in North America converge in Alberta’s boreal region, testifying to the incredible biodiversity that this region is able to support. It’s the health and biodiversity of regions like the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex that is integral in rearing and supporting the next generation of birds. For this reason, the boreal forest is commonly referred to as North America’s ‘bird nursery’.  

Given that it is one of the last remaining freshwater landing places for birds in a region that is dominated by the encroachment of tailings ponds, the McClelland Lake complex is especially critical. In addition to providing refuge from industrial activity, it is an important pit spot for many birds that make the journey to and from the Peace Athabasca Delta, one of the most important bird habitats in North America. 

Despite being a ‘diamond in the rough’ or in this case, an oil sands mine, the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex is set to perish at the expense of more tailings ponds on the landscape.  

An ancient wetland set to be destroyed by oil sands mining

At one time, the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex (MLWC) was protected from oilsands mining in recognition that its associated wetlands were of critical importance to biodiversity and wildlife. But protection was quickly revoked after the discovery of oilsands bitumen underneath the fen. In 2002, sub-regional plans changed at the request of True North Energy who had acquired leases in 1998. Following a decision made by Alberta Energy and Utilities board in 2002, mining was permitted to occur in half of the wetland complex, so long as the other half remain unimpacted by neighboring disturbance. Suncor, the present owner of the mine, was required to submit mitigation plans that demonstrate how it will protect the unmined portion of the wetland two years prior to mining. Suncor has now submitted the mitigation plan (also called the Operational Plan), which was approved by the Alberta Energy Regulator in September 2022.  

However, an expert review completed by Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) determined there are “many uncertainties and deficiencies which pose a high level of risk to the unmined wetland complex”.  

New analysis shows the oil sands mine will add 60 square kilometers of new tailings to the landscape in Northern Alberta  

There are no comprehensive tailings reclamation plans in place for the existing 1.4 trillion liters of tailings in northern Alberta. And yet, the expansion of Suncor’s Fort Hills oil sands mine will add the burden of over 730 billion liters of toxic tailings fluid to the landscape during the project’s lifetime (as described in Suncor’s Integrated Plan Amendment (IPA) Application, 2022) 

Currently, the footprint of tailings ponds in Alberta is 120 square kilometers. If you consider the additional tailings structures like dams and berms, this number balloons to 300 square kilometers. The expansion of the Fort Hills mine will add a further 60 square kilometers of fluid tailings area to the landscape (Figure 1). With the inclusion of associated tailings features, the mine will add 92 square kilometers of tailings area (Figure 1).  

Figure 1: Total cumulative footprint of tailings ponds and associated structures, such as dams and berms, for the Fort Hills mine from 2025 to 2063, including the construction of the ”North Pit” which will result in destruction of half of the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex.
Figure 1: Total cumulative footprint of tailings ponds and associated structures, such as dams and berms, for the Fort Hills mine from 2025 to 2063, including the construction of the ”North Pit” which will result in destruction of half of the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex.

Flying across hundreds of square kilometers of tailings ponds presents birds with immense risk. Migratory birds are especially vulnerable since they must fly long distances in what can be adverse weather conditions and need to land on nearby waterbodies to rest and to feed. From a birds-eye view, tailings ponds can easily be mistaken for natural water bodies, since they are large bodies of fluid and often slower to freeze over due to the warmth and salinity of the processed fluid. Anthropogenic light sources can also attract birds to the area. 

Mistaking tailings ponds and natural water bodies can be deadly for birds. The tailings water contains residual bitumen within the waters and the ponds. Oiled birds from the tailings ponds residue can sink and drown or become weighed down and unable to fly away.  

For birds that manage to both land on the tailings ponds and later escape them, their fate is ultimately unknown, as exposure to tailings can still be lethal. Birds may ingest oil while cleaning themselves and residual bitumen on their feathers cause them to lose both buoyancy and insulative properties. The contamination can also be toxic to developing embryos if bitumen is transferred to a nesting bird’s eggs.  

The oil sands industry has put measures in place to reduce the number of bird landings in tailings, however, experts say that current deterrents are inadequate and as long as tailings ponds exist, preventing bird deaths completely is an unrealistic goal.

Studies also show that the estimated landings in tailings ponds and associated deaths under-estimated and underreported by industry.  

McClelland Lake is one of the last remaining freshwater landing places and refuge for birds as they make their way across the region of sprawling tailings. It offers a safe flight path for birds travelling to and from the Peace Athabasca Delta, such as the endangered and rare whooping crane. Other species that frequent the area include at-risk birds such as olive-sided flycatchers, common nighthawks, rusty blackbirds, and yellow-rails. It is a unique habitat that took thousands of years to form and is invaluable to biodiversity in the region which incapsulates a multitude of plants, animals, and migratory birds. The destruction of this refuge is unacceptable.    

Expanding oil sands mine threatens ancient peatland and millions of birds
Expanding oil sands mine threatens ancient peatland and millions of birds

Take Action

If you share our concerns about the impacts of the Fort Hills expansion into the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex, we encourage you to take action by sending an email to the Alberta Government and the Alberta Energy Regulator. We recommend mentioning: 

  • The Government of Alberta and the provincial regulator must make decisions to protect Albertans and Alberta’s wildlife: do not allow for the needless destruction of McClelland Lake Wetland Complex. Reconsider and revoke the approval of Suncor’s Operational Plan for the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex. 
  • It is unacceptable to allow for the creation of 60 square kilometers of new tailings ponds when there are so many existing perpetual environmental issues with tailings ponds that must be first addressed, including a safe and community-supported reclamation plan.  
  • All migratory birds deserve a safe flight path over the oil sands region. The Fort Hills expansion into the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex will make migratory travel for millions of birds more dangerous, particularly for endangered bird species like the Whooping Crane.  
  •  Irreparable environmental destruction is not a fair cost of doing business in the oil sands. If companies cannot show that they can safely operate on public lands and in our watersheds, then they should not be able to operate at all.  

You can send your email to Hon. Brian Jean, Minister of Energy, and Hon. Rebecca Schulz, Minister of Environment and Protected Areas at [email protected] and [email protected] and the Alberta Energy Regulator at [email protected].

Please include CPAWS Northern Alberta in the ‘cc’ at [email protected].  

 Learn more about the work of Alberta Wilderness Association on protecting McClelland Lake Wetland Complex here: https://albertawilderness.ca/issues/wildlands/areas-of-concern/mcclelland-lake/ 

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