Page last updated at 13:25 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Canada's 'dirty oil' challenge

Steam billows out of a chimney at Syncrude's oil sands mine in northern Alberta

By Sarah Shenker
BBC News, Fort McMurray, Alberta

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.

How the oil sands region expanded between 1974 and 2004

"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.