CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A top Canadian official sought to calm an international uproar over hundreds of ducks killed at Canada's biggest oil sands plant by promising, at a U.S. oil industry event on Monday, that the incident will not go unpunished.
The deaths of 500 ducks last week on a Syncrude Canada Ltd wastewater pond was unacceptable, Industry Minister Jim Prentice said during an acceptance speech after Canada was named "Country of the Year" by Energy Magazine.
"We anticipate those responsible will face full scrutiny under Canadian law and, insofar as the government of Canada is concerned, there will be full accountability demanded," Prentice said, according to notes of the speech delivered in Houston.
The Canadian and Alberta governments have called the incident "tragic" and launched investigations.
That's done little to calm environmental groups, who say migratory birds are routinely killed in smaller numbers in tailings ponds, where toxic water from oil extraction sits.
Until last week, much of the debate over the impact of oil sands developments, now the target of more than $100 billion of investments, was concentrated on carbon dioxide emissions.
Technology is the answer to avoiding more animal deaths and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Prentice said.
"Once again, we need a full government and industry press on technological innovation," he said. "I have every confidence we will be just as successful meeting the environmental challenge as we were the cost of oil sands production."
Canada, already the top oil supplier to the United States, aims to nearly triple its oil sands output to three million barrels a day by the middle of the next decade.
Syncrude and other developers normally keep waterfowl away from the ponds with sound-cannons that simulate gunshots. The company has said a severe spring snowstorm prevented deployment of the system.
Over the weekend, Syncrude took out full-page advertisements in newspapers across the country, apologizing for the deaths, which have dominated headlines in Canada.
"As we go forward, we will learn from what happened, we will improve our practices, and we will meet your expectations for responsible development," Chief Executive Tom Katinas said in the ad.
On Sunday, another oil sands developer, ConocoPhillips, said its workers noticed a growing number of waterfowl on a settling pond at its Surmont project, south of Syncrude, last week.
After trying unsuccessfully to scare them away with air horns, two were captured and taken to a veterinarian in Fort McMurray, Alberta, for examination.
One loon was found dead near the pond, but the company said the cause of death was unclear.
Greenpeace said a second incident in less and a week showed "massive holes" in government monitoring and enforcement.
"It's past time we put the brakes on the tar sands," Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema said in a statement.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; Editing by Bernadette Baum