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Study for Shell’s Jackpine oilsands mine predicts big losses in animal habitat

By Marty Klinkenberg, Edmonton Journal October 21, 2012

A black-throated green warbler bathes at the bird sanctuary at High Island in Texas, May 8, 2006.

Photograph by: NATALIE CAUDILL , MCT

EDMONTON – Shell Canada outlines a substantial loss of habitat for birds, woodland caribou, bison and other animals in an environmental assessment of the proposed expansion of its Jackpine oilsands mine in northeastern Alberta.

The document prepared by the company for an upcoming public hearing predicts that the impact of all development projects in the region, including but not restricted to the proposed Jackpine mine, would result in the loss of 40 to 60 per cent of the habitat for birds, 47 per cent of habitat critical to woodland caribou, 39 per cent of the habitat used by wood bison and significant swaths of forest important to fisher, lynx, wolverine, moose, beaver and black bear.

“The numbers are unprecedented, and show we are getting closer and closer to an environmental tipping point,” said Simon Dyer, policy director for the Pembina Institute, a non-profit think-tank that promotes environmental, social and economic sustainability. “If everyone develops what they want to develop in the region it could be devastating.

“It is time some tough choices have to be made when it comes to deciding which projects go forward and which should be held back.”

Take a look at a gallery of animals that could be affected by the expansion

The Jackpine oilsands mine is 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray on the east side of the Athabasca River. An application by Shell to increase production of bitumen at its Jackpine site by 100,000 barrels to 355,000 per day is under environmental review by a federal and provincial panel that will convene in Fort McMurray beginning on Oct. 29.

Approximately 20 individuals and groups, including the Government of Canada, Syncrude, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, five First Nations and environmental advocates are participating.

Saying that Shell’s environmental assessment foretells greater cumulative damage to wildlife and biodiversity than any study of the oilsands that has ever been conducted, the Pembina Institute is opposing the application. If Shell’s Jackpine expansion and other proposed developments in the region are approved, the institute says, 13 of 22 assessed species will lose more than 20 per cent of their most critical habitat — a threshold identified in a previous oilsands review as representing a significant adverse effect.

Shell’s study predicts a 24-per-cent loss of habitat for moose, 18 per cent for beaver, 17 per cent for the black bear, 34 per cent for the fisher, 32 per cent for the lynx and 26 per cent for the wolverine.

Among bird species, the study predicts a 61-per-cent loss of habitat for the Canada warbler, 44 per cent for the black-throated green warbler, 43 per cent for the barred owl, 28 per cent for the rusty blackbird, 27 per cent for the yellow rail, 26 per cent for the horned grebe, and 13 per cent for the olive-sided flycatcher and common nighthawk.

“This is a question of cumulative effects,” Dyer said. “The sheer number of proposed projects will result in unacceptable impacts.”

David Williams, the head of media relations for Shell Canada, said the numbers in the assessment look drastic because they represent the impact of all possible mining and logging activity in the region and assume that all pending applications will be approved, all will go into operation at the same time, and all will result in maximized habitat disturbance. The predicted percentage of change is also based on pre-industrial levels for the region.

In some cases, the figures are also disproportional, Williams said; the predicted overall loss of habitat for woodland caribou is 47 per cent, but Shell’s proposed project would only account for one per cent of the loss.

Williams also said that Shell has plans to mitigate the lost habitat and restore wetlands.

Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, said her group believes there are many good reasons the Shell application for Jackpine expansion “is not in the public interest.”

But she said the study looking at the impacts on wildlife habitat is a move in the right direction.

“In the past, the unfortunate part of the environmental review process was that regulators looked at too narrow a window,” Campbell said. “At last, they prodded a company to be more realistic about the impacts.”

Williams said Shell has had the application in play since 2007, and understands it has its detractors.

“We look forward to hearing submissions from people at the hearing and responding to them,” he said. “It is all part of a fair process.”

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