In a landmark case that came to a conclusion last Friday, Provincial Court Judge Ken Tjosvold ruled that the University of Alberta will receive a $1.3 million donation from Syncrude Ltd, as part of their $3.3 million sentence over the deaths of 1,606 birds that had landed on a Syncrude tailings pond in 2008. The money will be used for research that will prevent similar deaths in the future,and was granted at the request of provincial and federal prosecutors.
This is clearly an effort on the part of the provincial and federal government to repair the image of the energy industry amongst students, and potential future employees, and show that it is not just about killing birds. Particularly considering the energy industry in Canada is looking at huge shortages of skilled and professional workers in the near future. Over 100, 000 new workers could be needed over the next 10 years to fill the void left by the retirement of the baby boomer generation, according to a study released by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada in June.
The generally negative perception of the industry amongst students isn’t helping the situation, which the feds and province are obviously aware of after the province revealed improvements to its Alberta Innovation program, hoping to translate Alberta’s hefty wealth from natural resources into investments in post secondary education.
The $1.3 million is allocated to researchers who will conduct studies on avian deterrence to stop the death of birds on these tailing ponds. The current system in place uses sound cannons to ward off birds from landing on the ponds. The lead researcher in the study, U of A biological sciences professor Colleen St. Clair, explained to the Gateway the innovations her research team hopes to bring:
“Picture yourself as a duck,” St. Clair said. “You’re flying towards the tailings pond. The old system would just have these cannons firing all the time, and you would hear them from a safe distance away and they would gradually get louder, but they wouldn’t change in any perceptible way relative to your behavior.”
“This new system — if you still imagine yourself as a duck, flying towards the tailings pond — the ponds are quiet and then suddenly out of nowhere, there is this big massive blast coming from right in front of you with all the cannons synchronized. The theory is that that will be a much more effective deterrent for birds.”
While the extra cash for the U of A is definitely a positive for St. Clair and her team, it is questionable whether this money was allocated with completely benevolent intent. Considering the discovery of more dead birds on tailing ponds in the Fort McMurray area came a drop in share prices of oilsands producers, including Syncrude.
In a province so heavily reliant on the natural resources industry, this donation may be more in interest of cleaning up the image of oilsands producers than the well being of our feathered friends.