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The Birds on the Tar Sands

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In the heat of the summer, the northern boreal forest in Canada is saturated with breeding birds. In the soil beneath the trees, thick oil is mixed with sand. But harvesting the resource, known as tar sands, could lead to the death of 166 million birds over the next 50 years, according to a new report.

A group of environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Boreal Songbird Initiative, put together the study and says that there should be a moratorium on new development of the tar sands and facilities already there should be cleaned up. Harvesting oil sands in Alberta could impact up to 170 million birds that breed in the boreal, they state. The report has not been released yet, according to an article in Reuters.

The U.S. gets more oil from Canada than from any other country -- including Saudi Arabia -- according to the Energy Information Administration. Yet extracting oil from tar sands is expensive and difficult. Trees must be cleared from the land before the oil can be removed, destroying bird habitat. Fewer wetlands and contamination in the area were additional reasons cited as to why the process would hurt birds and the environment. Still, the energy industry supports mining for the oil.

"We need a balanced conversation, supported like a stool with three legs, environment, economy and energy," said David Collyer, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers' president, according to the article. "Calls for a moratorium that consider only one leg of the stool, in a vacuum, are not constructive."

One could say that the energy leg is the only one being considered at this point. The environment is a crucial part of that balance, say the environmental groups, and before more oil sands are exploited, the government and the energy companies should consider taking measures that would reduce the damage.

With so many birds breeding in the boreal, some may say that taking a percentage is necessary to get the oil we need. But with Americans consuming 33 percent of the world's resources, according to the World Resources Institute, we might want to think twice about who or what should be making the sacrifice. Do we really want to destroy millions of birds and some of the last wild expanses in North America? Birds can be a good indicator of the environmental health of an area and we know what happened in the coal mine.

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