The government of Alberta, Canada started auctioning off thousands of acres of crucial caribou habitat to the oil industry on Wednesday, despite a government-funded report just days earlier warning that the herds were facing extinction.
First reported by the Canadian Press, the auction consists of 4,200 acres in the tar sands region of northern Alberta, just north of the town of Grande Cache. The land is home to several herds of mountain caribou, the report said, a species that has been slowly disappearing due to both recreational land use and increased oil development.
“The [factor] that has caused the greatest change is industrial disturbance,” said Justina Ray, who helped write the recent federal report warning of the caribous’ bleak future. The report, released earlier this month by Environment Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife, said central mountain caribou numbers have declined by 60 percent in the past 10 years, to just over 500 mature individuals.
“The herds in the worst shape will not turn around without intensive management,” Ray told the Rocky Mountain Outlook last week.
An Alberta Energy spokesperson did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ requests for comment on Wednesday. However, agency spokesman Mike Feenstra told the Canadian Press that, although the province recognizes mountain caribou as “threatened,” there are “strict operating restrictions” for companies that purchase the area for development.
Still, some have blamed the caribou’s decline in the region on a failure by tar sands companies to put money aside to secure critical habitat for the species. As the map provided by Global Forest Watch Canada shows below, industrial development has overlapped almost the entirety of caribou habitat in the region.
CREDIT: Global Forest Watch Canada
It’s also important to consider that the map above is also from 2012, and tar sands development in Alberta has increased markedly since then. According to the Alberta Energy website, production of tar sands oil is expected to increase from 1.9 million barrels per day in 2012 to 3.8 million barrels per day in 2022.
Alberta is the primary source of the Canadian tar sands, which are the second-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world next to Saudi Arabia. The oil there is different than conventional oil because it is actually bitumen, a semi-solid form of petroleum, mixed with dirt, sand, and water in the ground.
Because of its thick, gooey makeup, producers must use what is called “non-conventional” methods of getting the oil out of the ground. Those methods are controversial because they are more carbon-intensive, meaning they emit more greenhouse gases. They also produce a uniquely jarring effect on the land — Neil Young, a fierce opponent of the tar sands, has compared the extraction zones to Hiroshima. Tar sands oil is also the key ingredient for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which proposes to bring the Canadian oil down to refineries in Texas in Louisiana.
The enormous amount of controversy surrounding the tar sands hasn’t yet deterred energy companies from investing in the area, but it is starting to cause some concern among more activist investors. According to a report in Upstream, U.S. investment firm Boston Common Management, which holds a minority stake in Statoil, urged the company at a shareholder meeting on Tuesday to reconsider its investments in Alberta, saying the tar sands may hurt the company’s reputation, among other things.
“We are concerned about the possible economic and reputational risk linked to the company’s investment in the Canadian oil sands,” the firm reportedly said in a letter signed by 36 Statoil investors.
Statoil has decreased production of tar sands oil in Alberta from 16,000 barrels of oil per day in 2012 to 15,000 barrels of oil per day in 2013. However, the carbon intensity of that extraction increased significantly, from 55.6 kilograms of CO2 per barrel to 69.7 kilograms of CO2 per barrel.