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In April this year, about 500 migrating ducks on their way north landed in what looked like a large lake in western Canada. It was not a lake, but a tailings pond - a store for toxic waste from the oil sands extraction process, made up of water, clay, sand, residual bitumen and heavy metals. Most of the ducks died, killed by the slick of oil on the water's surface.

"It was horrifying," says Ruth Kleinbub, a field naturalist in nearby Fort McMurray, the city at the heart of the industry in the province of Alberta"In the spring, the open water would be such an invitation for the ducks, and the second they hit, they would have just drowned."

A government investigation of the incident has been handed over to Alberta's Department of Justice, which will decide whether or not to prosecute or fine the company involved, Syncrude. The incident was an embarrassment for Syncrude, which says its usual bird deterrent system was turned off because of the unseasonably cold weather.

It was a public relations nightmare for the Alberta government, which has been trying to convince national and international public opinion that its oil sands industry is environmentally responsible. Environmental laggard? It is an argument that environmentalists say the government has lost.

"When we are looking at the tar sands, we are looking at a project that is the largest capital investment project on the face of the planet, the largest industrial project on the planet, and the ecological implications are just as great," says Mike Hudema, an Edmonton-based climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.

Oil sands production, which requires large amounts of energy and water to extract the bitumen from the sand, is said to produce on average at least three times the greenhouse gas emissions of conventional oil extraction. The industry is already Canada's largest single greenhouse gas emitter, which has led opponents to call oil from the oil sands "dirty oil". Output is expected to triple by 2020.

The oil sands are single-handedly preventing Canada from meeting any of its Kyoto obligations, Mr Hudema says. Under the UN climate agreement, Canada was to have reduced its emissions to 20% below 2006 levels by 2020. The federal government has said it will not even attempt to meet those targets.

Ron Stevens, the conservative deputy premier of Alberta, denies the oil sands are responsible. He says "dirty oil" is a tag that people have developed "to smear the oil industry". If you take into account the lifecycle of the oil, including refining and transportation, he says, "the CO2 emissions become very comparable to oil from a number of other countries, including Venezuela".

Even on that "well-to-wheels" basis, oil from the oil sands produces about 15% more emissions than conventional oil. There has been some debate as to whether US reliance on Canadian oil (Canada is the largest oil exporter to the US) could make it difficult for California to meet its new Low-Carbon Fuel Standard.

During the US election campaign, President-elect Barack Obama's team talked of breaking the US's addiction to "dirty, dwindling" oil - seen by many as a direct reference to the oil sands. In recognition of the growing concern, the Alberta government announced a C$2bn ($1.6bn; £1.1bn) plan to fund a number of carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, which by 2015 could be sequestering 5m tons of CO2 annually. It has also imposed legislation that requires all industries to cut emissions by 12% or face fines of C$15 a tonne.

A Calgary-based environmental think thank, the Pembina Institute, is sceptical that the projects will do much to mitigate emissions, which are predicted to rise to 141m tonnes of CO2 by 2020. "I think we're overselling this as a solution," says its oil sands programme director Simon Dyer. 'Too much money' Earlier this year, the Pembina Institute withdrew from a government-sponsored advisory body, the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (Cema), saying the government was failing to impose recommended limits to protect the environment.

The Fort McMurray Environmental Association, which manages air monitoring stations throughout the region, left Cema at the same time over what it described as a lack of planning to deal with the long-term effects of large-scale development. "It's full speed ahead when it comes to the oil sands, that's the government's mentality," says association president Ann Dort-McLean. "This is northern Alberta.

It's absolutely gorgeous up here, and that beauty needs to be protected," she says. Ms Dort-McLean is not alone. A poll commissioned by the Pembina Institute in 2007 suggested that 71% of Albertans felt that oil sands development should be slowed down or stopped until infrastructure and environmental management issues were addressed. For their part, oil sands companies say they have to deal with some of the world's strictest environmental regulations when it comes to reclamation and water use.

The industry uses regulated amounts of water from the Athabasca River to separate bitumen from the sand. The water leftover from the extraction process, known as tailings, contains arsenic, mercury, napthenic acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Much of the water is reused, but the industry is producing 1.8m litres of tailings a day which need to be contained in large earthen dams.

As of March this year, tailings covered 130 sq km. Industry and government are adamant that no tailings ever leak back into the river, or into deep aquifers. It has been widely reported in the Canadian media that oil sands company Suncor admitted to a leak of 1,600 sq m from its Tar Island Pond 1 tailings pond in 1997, although a current spokesman for Suncor says he does not have any information about the incident.

Environmental scientist Kevin Timoney says he has seen data that suggest elevated levels of PAHs downstream of the plants, which he says could only be attributable to oil sands production. "I think eventually, when all the studies are complete, we should be able to conclude that the tar sands industry is creating an environmental catastrophe," Mr Timoney says.

Reclamation or restoration?

The tailings ponds, and the mine sites, which currently cover 420 sq km, will eventually have to be reclaimed to "equivalent land use". "The industry is applying a lot of technology to minimising the impact of tailings ponds, " says Martyn Griggs of the Canadian Association of Petroleum ProducersSyncrude says it has reclaimed 47 sq km since 1978, including its Gateway Hill site, covering just over one sq km, in March this year.

Steve Gaudet, Syncrude's environmental manager, says reclamation is slow by its very nature, and often takes at least 20 years. However, the Pembina Institute's Mr Dyer says Gateway Hill is "completely unrepresentative of the challenges the industry faces".

The site was not a former mine, but a low-lying wetland used to store earth moved to make way for a mine elsewhere. It is now a forested hill with walking trails. "The industry talks a lot about potential technological solutions, but you'll notice they always talk about solutions in the future tense," Mr Dyer says.

The Pembina Institute and Greenpeace have both called for a halt to new oil sands developments. Greenpeace's Mr Hudema says what happening with the oil sands is fundamentally changing people's perception of Canada as an environmentally progressive country. "What we are doing in Alberta is simply beyond imagination and beyond belief," he says.

 
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