President Obama has a very important decision to make in approving or rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Tar sands production is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging activities. It wrecks vast areas of boreal forest through surface mining and subsurface production. It sucks up huge quantities of water from local rivers, turns it into toxic waste and dumps the contaminated water into tailing ponds that now cover nearly 70 square miles1.

This is a map of of the world distribution of the Taiga or Boreal Forest biome. Clicking on the map will take you to an explanation of this important biome, including its climate and its plant and animal species.

Boreal Forest

All four major flyways in North America — the aerial migration routes traveled by billions of birds each year — converge in one spot in Canada’s boreal forest, the Peace-Athabasca Delta in northeastern Alberta.  More than 1 million birds, including tundra swans, snow geese and countless ducks, stop to rest and gather strength in these undisturbed wetlands each autumn.  For many waterfowl, this area is their only nesting ground2.

Birds and Tars Sands Oil Map

About three billion birds fly north to the Boreal Forest each spring to build nests and lay eggs. These birds arrive in the Boreal Forest after spending the winter in South and Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the United States. From the Boreal Forest Fact Sheet:

  • 325 bird species – that’s almost half of all the bird species in North America! – depend on the Boreal Forest.
  • About 3 billion of North America’s landbirds, 26 million of its waterfowl, and 7 million of its shorebirds breed here.
  • There are nearly 100 species of which 50% or more of the entire population breeds in the Boreal Forest.
  • Up to 5 billion birds – adults and their new babies – migrate south from the Boreal Forest each fall.

Back in 2008, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wrote a report titled “Danger in the Nursery: Impact on Birds of Tar Sands Oil Development in Canada’s Boreal Forest” which covers various ways tar sand development affects bird populations including:

  • Habitat loss
  • Trailings ponds and oiled birds
  • Fragmentation of habitat from drilling
  • Water withdrawals
  • Air and water toxins
  • High emissions and climate change

Remember, this was back in 2008. Things have expanded since then. This is an aerial photograph of the Athabasca Oil Sands when things were slow in 1984.

Athabasca Oil Sands 1984

This is a photograph of the same area in 2011.

Athabasca Oil Sands 2011

Oil sand mining has a large impact on the environment. Forests must be cleared for both open-pit and in situ mining. Pit mines can grow to more than 80 meters depth, as massive trucks remove up to 720,000 tons of sand every day. As of September 2011, roughly 663 square kilometers (256 square miles) of land had been disturbed for oil sand mining3.

So, deforestation, loss of breeding grounds, miles of trailings ponds that look like lakes to migrating birds leading to death by oiling and drowning all take a toll on our bird populations. But wait, we haven’t even talked about climate change!

Because it takes energy to mine and separate oil from the sands, oil sands extraction releases more greenhouse gases than other forms of oil production. The mines shown in the image above emitted more than 20 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2008— a product of both oil production and electricity production for the mining operation. The effort produced the equivalent of 86 to 103 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every barrel of crude oil produced. By comparison, 27 to 58 kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted in the conventional production of a barrel of crude oil3.


Then there is, as history shows, the certainty that there will be oil spills from the Keystone XL Pipeline across sensitive areas of the United States. Just look at the recent spill in Arkansas.


As Michael Klare wrote in a recent piece for Mother Jones, “Presidential decisions often turn out to be far less significant than imagined, but every now and then what a president decides actually determines how the world turns. Such is the case with the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, is slated to bring some of the “dirtiest,” carbon-rich oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. In the near future, President Obama is expected to give its construction a definitive thumbs up or thumbs down, and the decision he makes could prove far more important than anyone imagines. It could determine the fate of the Canadian tar-sands industry and, with it, the future well-being of the planet.”

“The stakes in this battle could not be higher. If Keystone XL fails to win the president’s approval, the industry will certainly grow at a far slower pace than forecast and possibly witness the failure of costly ventures, resulting in an industry-wide contraction. If approved, however, production will soar and global warming will occur at an even faster rate than previously projected. In this way, a presidential decision will have an unexpectedly decisive and lasting impact on all our lives.”


Now is the time to make a stand. We can’t afford allowing such an environmental disaster to continue unchecked. We need to make our voices heard.

This is a list of links that you can follow to contact your government officials to voice your opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline. Please send at least one letter or make at least one phone call to let your representatives know that you won’t stand for this insanity.

References:1New York Times,2National Resources Defense Council,3Earth Observatory

Written by Larry
Larry Jordan was introduced to birding after moving to northern California where he was overwhelmed by the local wildlife, forcing him to buy his first field guide just to be able to identify all the species visiting his yard. Building birdhouses and putting up feeders brought the avian fauna even closer and he was hooked. Larry wanted to share his passion for birds and conservation and hatched The Birder's Report in September of 2007. His recent focus is on bringing the Western Burrowing Owl back to life in California where he also monitors several bluebird trails. He is a BirdLife Species Champion and contributes to several other conservation efforts, being the webmaster for Wintu Audubon Society and the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Urban Bird Foundation. He is now co-founder of a movement to create a new revenue stream for our National Wildlife Refuges with a Wildlife Conservation Pass.