Alberta’s tar sands got yet another huge black eye this week when as many as 500 ducks died after simply landing on a giant pond full of highly toxic oil sands tailings. Only five were said to have survived their toxic plunge. A member of a Canadian environmental watchdog group described the water found in the ponds as follows:

Drinking a glass of water from a tailings pond would be like drinking a diluted glass of oil or gasoline.

Whether the bitumen is cooked in situ while still underground or scraped off, carted away, and processed elsewhere — either process requiring both huge amounts of energy and water — millions of tons of global warming pollution are produced and nearly unfathomable amounts of toxic wastewater and tailings are left behind. Indeed, it is estimated that producing one barrel of oil from tar sands requires between 2 and 4.5 barrels of water. Last year alone, the Alberta tar sands industry was permitted water withdrawals totaling a staggering 119.5 billion gallons.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Unluckily enough for birds and other forest creatures, the tar sands lie under Canada’s hitherto pristine boreal forest and directly below major migratory flyways. In 2006, some 50 square kilometers of the formerly forested area were covered by the toxic tailings ponds, to say nothing of the additional hundreds of squares miles of forests that have been ripped away to get to the bitumen underneath.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Canada Syncrude Ltd, the company responsible for the environmental tragedy, blamed it on its failure to make operational a set of 13 propane-powered noise cannons meant to scare fowl away from the ponds. Such cannons and scarecrows must generally remain in use in perpetuity, even in areas that have been “reclaimed” after production is complete.

All of this comes as the provincial government of Alberta, which is now experiencing a Wild West-like boom thanks to the tar sands, is set to launch a $25 million, three-year taxpayer-funded PR campaign to persuade Americans and others that the tar sands are “environmentally responsible.”

Ed Stelmach, the Conservative Premier of Alberta, claims that the campaign is necessary to combat the “myth,” propagated by the likes of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, that the tar sands are an environmental disaster. He likens the provincial government to a David fighting against a green Goliath. This, of course, is the same “David” that once brought a gigantic hauler all the way to the Smithsonian Folklike Festival on the National Mall to serve as the centerpiece of an exhibit about how fabulous Alberta and the tar sands are.

And rivaling coal-fired corn-ethanol distilleries in the contest for the Worst Idea Ever, the province is also considering plans to use nuclear reactors to produce the massive amounts of energy needed to extract oil from the tar sands.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The provincial energy minister was forced to apologize to the Sierra Club this week after claiming during a heated floor debate on the subject that the Club was pro-nukes and ran ads to that effect in Europe. The Club (in both its American and Canadian incarnations), of course, remains staunchly anti-nuke and doesn’t even operate in Europe. It seems that minister had confused the Club with ex-Greenpeacer-turned-industry shill Patrick Moore.

The tar sands are even at the center of a growing diplomatic row between the U.S. and Canada. A little-noticed provision of the 2007 energy bill prohibits the federal government from purchasing unconventional fuels with lifecycle global warming emissions greater than conventional fuels like gas or diesel. The provision — meant mainly as a body block to liquid coal — has also ensnared fuels produced from tar sands oil, most of which is refined at specialized refineries here in the U.S.

Despite all of the environmental concerns and serious doubts raised by investors, BP and Shell have plunged headlong into the tar sands boom. This is particularly troubling as both companies have also begun to signal a move away from investments in renewable energy.

Finally, it’s no coincidence that as Canada has moved rapidly to develop the tar sands, it finds itself miles away from its Kyoto target: a reduction of 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. In fact, Canada now finds itself some 25 percent above 1990 levels.