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The Crude in Syncrude: ugliness at the tar sands duck trial

Josh Mogerman

Posted March 3, 2010

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Duck in Syncrude tar sands tailing pond

You want to know just how tone-deaf the tar sands industry and their Big Oil backers are? Yesterday, in a trial over the death of 1600+ ducks that had landed in a toxic mining runoff lake, lawyers for the Canadian tar sands company Syncrude lambasted wildlife officials for shooting ducks with a camera instead of a shotgun.

The high profile trial revisits the shameful 2008 incident when the water birds drowned in the company’s tailings pond. Apparently, horrific images of oiled and incapacitated birds (like the one above) abound in the trial and that seems to have Syncrude’s lawyers particularly worked up. Rather than owning up to their own responsibility for creating the situation (they plead not guilty and say they couldn’t have predicted it), the company’s lawyers took exception with the photos being taken in the first place. According to the Globe and Mail:

One particularly poignant sequence of images showed a duck being circled by a raven, then attacked and eventually eaten. A second raven then joins in. The pictures, taken by a senior Alberta wildlife biologist, are disturbing.

But Syncrude lawyer Robert White attacked the biologist, Todd Powell, for taking photos of the attack rather than shooting the distressed duck.

“What was more important to these people? Horrifying us with pictures of these ravens eating that poor duck? Why not put that poor thing out of its misery and shoot it?” he said. “They were far more interested in bringing photographs of that poor thing being eaten alive, which makes me sick to my stomach … than they were looking after the suffering of that animal.”

Hmmm. Sick to his stomach from the horrible death of birds incapacitated by merely coming into contact with the toxic slop that Syncrude created? Sick to his stomach to see WATER BIRDS drowning after coming into contact with their improperly managed waste? (The article notes that the wildlife folks were indeed forced to gun down dozens of birds.)

The lawyer complained that wildlife officials were using the suffering birds like props in a play, but let’s not forget that Syncrude created the whole drama. And sadly, it’s a drama that is likely playing out regularly. Surely not 1600 birds at a time, but last year’s Danger in the Nursery report illustrated a very ugly toll being taken in one of the most important regions of the world for migratory birds.

The death of these birds is hardly the worst or most ugly aspect of the tar sands industry’s woeful environmental record. The impact that they are having on the region’s water (Susan Casey-Lefkowitz has some ugly data on that aspect of Syncrude's operations in her recent post), the health concerns from nearby communities, the insanely high carbon emissions associated with the extraction and processing of this goo, and the moonscapes stretching to the horizon of the Boreal forest are all arguably much worse sins. But the images of tarred birds are undeniable.

And blaming the folks who brought them to the world’s attention? Well, that’s just crude...

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Phillip MartinMar 3 2010 08:07 PM

Please tell that idiotic journalist that Canadas Natural Resource like many other countries, is OILSANDS not TARSANDS.
Tar is essentially a manmade product and a derivative of oil.
The correct term which he is ignorant of is
OILSANDS, the term used by industry, Universities in PetroChemicals and Government
Only whackos and the unintelligent use the pejorative term.
Alberta Petro-Chemical Engineer formerly from Chicago

Josh MogermanMar 3 2010 11:09 PM


Thanks for reading my blog and taking the time to share your thoughts, it is much appreciated. That said, I have to strongly disagree with you. Talk to some of the other petro-chemical engineers that you work with in Alberta and I guarantee that they used to use the term tar sands. I didn't create the term, it has been around and was used in Canada throughout the last century. Oil sands is the new term, coined in recent years. It is rebranding. An attempt to make the bitumen goo seem more friendly and less dirty. And while I understand the industry's interest in cleaning up its image, I don't think I am a wacko or unintelligent for choosing not to follow that lead and advance that agenda.

And frankly, I am frustrated that the term has been so blindly embraced by American media at the oil industry's behest---though I understand the interest in a term that is seemingly more descriptive. But oil sands implies something that just isn't the case. Bitumen is not oil. It was at some point but has been significantly degraded by bacteria and other forces into something different as it sat under the boreal forest for millenia. The stuff in question does not flow or pool on top of the sand as the words imply. Instead, the gunk being steamed and dug out of Alberta is so dense and sticky (tarry perhaps?) that it requires significant amounts of energy and other oil products to make it viscous enough to flow through a pipeline.

Words matter. Its why the tar sands industry is so invested in euphemisms that downplay the damage and global warming threat coming from Alberta: "the Patch" is a cute name for the horizon-to-horizon mining moonscapes; "tailings pond" doesn't convey the massive toxic lakes covering over 50 square miles. I love this quote from a professor at University of Alberta's School of Business when talking about the tar sands industry:

"Rebranding works best when it comes with a lot of changes. Taking the exact same product and giving it a new name and without explaining what the value is or how it has changed isn't likely to be very effective."

I don't see a lot of change, so I will stick to the original Canadian word for the stuff---tar sands.

More at

Whew...OK, getting down from the soap box...

Johnny CanuckMar 4 2010 07:42 PM

I would just like to thank the American petro-chemical engineer for correcting us dumb Canadians ,shucks we didn't even know what the stuff was.We referred to it as tar sands way back in the 1970's.Thanks for coming up to our country and living up to the old adage take nothing but pictures leave nothing but your footprints.Our pristine northern boreal forests are far better off with our smart southern neighbours as custodians.

Josh MogermanMar 4 2010 11:02 PM

A voice of reason from the north---thank you Johnny Canuck!

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