On August 4, 2014, the catastrophic failure of a mining company's dam in British Columbia, Canada, released over 2.5 billion gallons of contaminated water from a containment pond into the upper Faser River watershed. Only a few hundred miles east... Read More >
Huge Ponds Hold Tar Sands Sludge, And Great Risks
On August 4, 2014, the catastrophic failure of a mining company's dam in British Columbia, Canada, released over 2.5 billion gallons of contaminated water from a containment pond into the upper Faser River watershed. Only a few hundred miles east in Alberta, at least half a dozen dams containing the wastewater from the tar sands mining industry hold more than 100 times the volume of the British Columbia release and span over 43,000 acres of Canada's boreal forest. A breach from any one of these mine-tailings ponds would pose enormous risks to local communities and the surrounding boreal forest ecosystem.
And yet, Canadian authorities offer virtually no public information about the safety of these tailings dams, which already leak millions of gallons of wastewater — containing a suite of
Source: Rocky Kistner, NRDC
toxins, such as naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phenolic compounds, ammonia, and mercury — every day. Meanwhile, Canadian regulators have opted not to enforce existing laws meant to limit the volume of toxic waste produced during tar sands mining or confront the leaks. Canada’s Pembina Institute projected that the volume of tailings will grow by at least 40 percent over the next two decades. By 2060, Pembina estimates that these mine-tailings ponds, which lie amidst the Canadian boreal landscape, will grow by another hundred and twenty billion gallons.
The tailings liability
The tar sands industry's tailings problem is a growing liability and it is getting worse. The mining operations generate massive volumes naphthenic acids, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phenolic compounds, ammonia, and mercury and other trace metals, and some of these compounds are carcinogenic. For every barrel of tar sands bitumen produced (the semi-solid substance from which oil is eventually refined), 1.5 barrels of liquid waste is added to the tailings ponds. According to the Pembina Institute, at current production levels, this means that every single day, mining operations have to store 6.6 million more gallons of tailings.
Already, more than 200 billion gallons of this liquid byproduct is stored behind those massive tailing dams, covering an area larger than Washington, D.C. According to Pembina, because of weak and unenforced regulations, the volume of tailings could grow to 343 billion gallons by 2060.
Source: Rocky Kistner, NRDC
The risks from the ponds are well known. Last year, David Schindler, the University of Alberta’s Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology, one of Canada's renowned water scientists, warned that a tar sands tailing breach was a huge threat. In 2013, the internationally respected Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, hosted by the University of California, convened international water experts to evaluate threats to the MacKenzie Basin (where the tar sands are located) and concluded, "… the largest single threat to the Mackenzie River Basin would be a large breach in the tailings ponds at one of the sites where surface mining bitumen is conducted."
Northern communities living downstream from these massive tailings dams are aware and concerned about risks presented by the tar-sands industry upstream. A larger spill could threaten not just the Athabasca river but the Peace-Athabasca delta, Lake Athabasca, the Slave river and delta, Great Slave Lake, and the Mackenzie river and delta, all of which empty into the Beaufort sea. Cleaning such a spill could cost billions of dollars.
Public information is lacking
Worldwide, major failures of tailings dams — like the recent one in British Columbia — occur at a frequency of two to five per year (there are approximately 3,500 tailings dams worldwide) while 35 smaller breaches occur annually. This is a much higher failure rate than experienced by water supply or hydroelectric dams. And Canada hasn't escaped this problem.
Just last year, a massive breach of tailings pond dam from an Alberta coal mine operation dumped 177 million gallons of water and 9.8 million gallons of sediment into the Athabasca watershed (the same watershed threatened by tar sands tailings). Despite an ongoing investigation, the cause of the 2013 breach is still unknown, though critics claim that a lack of government oversight is partly to blame.
Generally, a number of risk factors can lead to tailings dam failures. These include:
- While public bodies often own conventional dams, tailings dam are often owned and constructed by private mining companies who view the dams as a money-draining part of their operations.
- Unlike conventional dams, tailings dams can have a lifetime of hundreds of years and are considered permanent fixtures on landscapes. A conventional dam typically has a lifetime of less than 100 years.
- While conventional dams are constructed over a relatively short period, mining dams are constructed continuously over many years. As an example, the Suncor Tar Island tailings dam, originally intended to be 12 meters tall and be in use for only 3 years, has now risen to 91 meters and is more than 40 years old.
Tailings dams information is lacking
Canadian authorities share little information about the safety of tar-sands-tailings lakes. According the Pembina Institute, key documents like emergency preparedness plans, emergency response plans, operations and maintenance manuals, tailings-dam performance reports, and dam safety reviews are kept confidential for proprietary reasons. But according to the institute, "The difficulty in acquiring information on tar sands tailings dams, combined with the government of Alberta not publicly addressing concerns on tailings dam stability, limits the possibility for fair public scrutiny and independent dam assessment. Thus, the public is left to trust that tailings dams are safely constructed and maintained and that adequate plans for emergencies are in place."
And to be clear, tar sands tailings dams haven't escaped problems. Three major accidents have been reported, all in the 1970s, due to factors such as slope instability and foundation weakness. However, there is no public information about these events or the volume of tailings that was released.
Tailings ponds are already leaking
While the public has little information about the risk of a breach, the regulation of tar-sands tailings dams is dismal. A 2008 study by Environmental Defence Canada, based on industry data, found that as much as 2.9 million gallons of water leaks from tar sands tailings ponds into the environment every day, with no enforcement by the government. New federal research by Environment Canada, released in February 2014, confirms that leaking tailings ponds are leaching into groundwater and then into the Athabasca river.
Even the weakest regulations on the books, designed to limit the volume of tailings waste, aren't enforced. There are news reports on how the tar sands industry is not complying with these regulations and Alberta regulators have announced they will not enforce the regulations first introduced in 2009.
Canadian authorities looking the other way
Perhaps most distressing is how authorities from the Canadian federal government treat the tar-sands tailings problem. A petition filed by NRDC and Environmental Defence Canada in 2010 with the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC), a NAFTA oversight body, raised concerns about the leaking tailings ponds and the failure of federal government authorities to enforce its clean water laws. Recently, the CEC agreed to pursue an investigation, but in a shocking response, the Canadian government has not only refused to participate in the investigation but has announced it will fight to keep the investigation from happening.
And while the government has no plans to eliminate tailings from the tar sands production process, last year Alberta's premier traveled to Washington, D.C. to disingenuously claim that tailings dams would "disappear from Alberta's landscape in the near future." It is no secret the Alberta government has failed to enforce its tailings regulations but its communication materials suggest they are enforcing the law. And despite clear evidence to the contrary, the Alberta government denies there is even a problem with leaking tailings ponds.
All of this leaves the public in both Canada and the United States with a strong impression that Albertan and federal Canadian regulators are, at best, ignoring the alarming growth of tailings waste and the fact that the ponds are leaking. This willful ignorance, coupled with the lack of public information about safety measures in place to prevent against a breach, does not inspire confidence that authorities are minding the store. It is in this atmosphere that the public has a right to demand information so they can learn about the risks of a catastrophic breach of a tar sands tailing dam and push for actions to prevent it from ever happening.'
This blog post was originally posted on Live Science.
The following is a guest blog by NRDC wildlife attorney, Rebecca Riley: Mountain lions, gray wolves, and black bears are now safe to roam in Illinois, thanks to the leadership of Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois legislature. This last... Read More >
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn Signs Wildlife Protections into Law
The following is a guest blog by NRDC wildlife attorney, Rebecca Riley:
Mountain lions, gray wolves, and black bears are now safe to roam in Illinois, thanks to the leadership of Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois legislature. This last weekend, Governor Quinn signed the Protection of Wildlife Bill, which ensures that these carnivores will no longer be killed in our state without good cause.
According to researchers at Southern Illinois University, seven gray wolves, four mountain lions, and two black bears have been spotted in Illinois since 2000. And just a few months ago, there were reports of a third black bear near Rockford.
Until now, these animals could be shot on sight, no questions asked. And that is exactly what happened when mountain lions wandered into the state. Now, thanks to the new law, hunting and shooting mountain lions, gray wolves, and black bears is illegal, except in cases where the animals threaten livestock or public safety.
We all owe a special thanks to Governor Quinn, Chief Sponsors Senator Linda Holmes and Representative Kelly Cassidy as well as all the members of the Illinois General Assembly, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Illinois Farm Bureau, and the many environmental and conservation groups that worked together to protect wildlife in the great State of Illinois. This law is a victory for wildlife and wild lands in the Prairie State. A victory that we hope spreads across the region.
In the wake of the devastating Mt. Polley Mine disaster, and even as the latest tests confirmed elevated levels of toxic copper and lead in aquatic life, a predictable progression is already underway. Within days, the mine owner, the... Read More >
VIDEO: Pebble Mine and the Death Star Mine at Mount Polley
In the wake of the devastating Mt. Polley Mine disaster, and even as the latest tests confirmed elevated levels of toxic copper and lead in aquatic life, a predictable progression is already underway.
Within days, the mine owner, the containment dam designer, and British Columbia’s Minister of Mines began to denigrate the extent of the risks from, or their own role in, the massive spill of billions of gallons of contaminated wastes into surrounding, formerly pristine salmon spawning streams and lakes. Not that bad, not my fault – and, from Mines Minister Bill Bennett, not much different than an "avalanche."
Across the border in Alaska, the Pebble Limited Partnership moved quickly to distance its massive Pebble Mine from the spectacular failure at Mt. Polley. Like a ghost in the night, it quietly removed from its Youtube site a Pebble Mine TV commercial highlighting British Columbia’s Fraser River copper mines -- of which Mt. Polley is one -- as a model of harmonious co-existence between mining and fisheries.
Although the Partnership’s spokesperson Mike Heatwole assured the media that it did so “out of deference to the people affected by this incident,” there may be other more obvious, less compassionate motives for hiding a TV commercial framed around the phrase “[j]ust like the Fraser River . . . .”
Maybe the commercial was deleted because the Pebble Partnership recognizes that Mt. Polley is now synonymous not with harmonious mining and fishing co-existence but with mining and fisheries disaster.
Or maybe the Pebble Partnership doesn’t want to remind anyone that the containment dam at Mt. Polley was designed by the same company hired to design the containment dams for the Pebble Mine.
Whatever the reason, the Pebble Partnership certainly understands, in the wake of Mt. Polley’s huge tailings release, that the Fraser River mines are now “way off message” for their claim that no such thing could ever happen at the Pebble Mine.
The Pebble Partnership made a bad decision when it hitched its massive Pebble Mine to a mining “death star” near the Fraser River – a public relations strategy now gone terribly wrong. It was a strategy built on Pebble’s unquestioning faith in the ability of mining engineers to design and operate a containment pond that will contain millions of gallons to billions of tons of wastes on a temporal scale of centuries – or, in the case of the failed Mt Polley dam built in 1997, at least for more than 17 years.
While it’s no surprise that Pebble now hopes to “unhitch” their Bristol Bay mega-mine from the Mt. Polley disaster, we can’t let them get away with it. There is absolutely no reason for anyone any longer to believe the Pebble Partnership’s empty, self-serving, impossible promises that the Pebble Mine would never do to Alaska what the Mt. Polley Mine has done to British Columbia.
Tell EPA today to stop the Pebble Mine. Tell EPA to protect Bristol Bay.
Take action now.
And then please share this blog post. Please share the video.
A new report released by the Alberta government reveals a concerning trend with declining air quality as a result of tar sands operations. While the report itself was just released, the air pollution information in the report is dated back in... Read More >
Declining air quality in the tar sands region: Is the government responding?
A new report released by the Alberta government reveals a concerning trend with declining air quality as a result of tar sands operations. While the report itself was just released, the air pollution information in the report is dated back in 2012. What's more, there appears to be a total lack of a response by the Alberta government to this problem. Instead, the government report indicates that only now will the provincial government start to work with industry to take action to address the air pollution problems. Even then, there is no indication what those management actions will be.
According to the new report reporting for air monitoring stations in tar sands region, levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide were measured in 2012 at levels indicating a declining trend but were still below levels the Alberta government considered harmful to human health. The report promised that the Alberta government would begin to undertake a management response and determine what management actions should occur.
While Environment Minister Robin Camptell took a more relaxed approach to the report findings indicating the “system is working” and they have been “proactive in..working with industry”, the Pembina Institute pushed for more aggressive action:
“We urge the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Energy Regulator to immediately start development of an emissions reduction plan for the region to get nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide pollution down to targeted levels, including stricter pollution limits for existing and proposed oilsands operations.”
The government report is part of a broader environmental management system in Alberta that is meant to limit the cumulative effects of tar sands development. But this approach will only be effective if there is regular up-to-date monitoring and a proactive and immediate response to declining trends like the one that was reported. So the release of this air quality data – however old – is a key indicator in whether the cumulative effect of tar sands production is worsening air quality. This is particularly important because according to the Pembina Institute, industry modelling shows that “maximum legal air quality limits are projected to be exceeded in coming years if oilsands expansion proceeds as planned.”
The cumulative effects approach the Alberta government claims it follows, however, is only effective if the government proactively and aggressively respond to declining trends. So it is a real concern the Government of Alberta has so far failed to take any corrective management actions to respond to these trends. This does not build confidence the cumulative effects approach is being taken seriously.
The Alberta government has waged an intensive campaign in Canada and in the United States arguing it is taking a proactive approach that sets firm limits for air, land, and water. But the only way to measure up to this public relations campaign is to implement it and demonstrate a true commitment to action.
Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated World Elephant Day today by signing into law a bill (A10143/S7890) that will help stop the slaughter of African elephants for their tusks by drying up the nation’s largest market for ivory: New York City. And... Read More >
Governor Cuomo Shuts Down the Country's Biggest Ivory Market
Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated World Elephant Day today by signing into law a bill (A10143/S7890) that will help stop the slaughter of African elephants for their tusks by drying up the nation’s largest market for ivory: New York City.
And since the U.S. ivory market is second only to China worldwide, this action in the Empire State will make a difference on the other side of the globe, where more than 30,000 endangered elephants were poached in Africa for their tusks in 2012.
You see, while the sale of new ivory has been banned nationwide for years, poachers have been able to continue sneaking it onto store shelves under the guise of “antiques.” Cracking down on this black market has proven extremely challenging as it’s very difficult to determine the age of ivory. A 2008 ivory survey in New York City found 11,376 items being offered for sale by 124 outlets like gift shops and antique markets, over 10% of which came from China and were likely illegal.
(C) Elly Pepper
The bill, which passed in June and was introduced by Assemblyman Sweeney and Senator Lanza, seeks to put an end to that once and for all by prohibiting transactions of ivory, mammoth, and rhino horn, save for a few narrow exceptions (i.e., certain musical instruments, educational and scientific purposes such as museums, 100-year-old antiques that are less than 20% ivory with documented proof of provenance, and transfers to legal beneficiaries of trusts/estates).
The bills also increase fines and jail time for those who violate New York’s wildlife trafficking laws. Until now, the punishment has been basically a slap on the wrist. But these bills will impose a fine of $3,000 or 2x the value of the article for the first offense, $6,000 or 3x the value of the article for the second offense, and a Class D felony for articles exceeding $25,000 which means 5-10 years in prison plus a significant fine.
The new law is known as “Fitzpatrick’s Law” in honor of Lt. John Fitzpatrick, who passed away this May and who we will also now remember every World Elephant Day. A long-time Environmental Conservation Officer for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, Lt. Fitzpatrick spearheaded investigations of illegal ivory sales, helped to institute new ivory permit procedures, and truly wanted to see this bill become law. Today, his hard work comes to fruition.
With two governors signing laws to ban ivory sales in two weeks, the United States is headed in the right direction when it comes to stopping elephant poaching in Africa. Let’s celebrate World Elephant Day with the goal that we ban the ivory trade in other top markets like California and Hawaii and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues strong rules to stop the ivory trade at the federal level by this day next year.
Happy World Elephant Day!
As African leaders conferred with U.S. officials on how to end the wildlife trafficking crisis at yesterday’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, New Jersey Governor Christie signed legislation that will crack down on the state’s ivory trade and help end the... Read More >
Governor Christie Signs New Jersey Ivory Bill Into Law!
As African leaders conferred with U.S. officials on how to end the wildlife trafficking crisis at yesterday’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, New Jersey Governor Christie signed legislation that will crack down on the state’s ivory trade and help end the skyrocketing poaching levels, which led to the deaths of more than 30,000 elephants in 2012.
Sponsored by Senators Lesniak and Bateman and Assembly members Mukherji and Jasey, the bipartisan bill (A.3128/S.2012), which overwhelmingly passed the New Jersey Assembly and Senate in June, prohibits individuals from importing, selling, bartering, purchasing, or possessing with intent to sell any ivory or rhinoceros horn products, with exemptions for certain educational items.
The bill also helps protect endangered wildlife by creating strict financial penalties for those caught dealing in illegal wildlife, making a first offense punishable by fine of $1,000 or double the value of the product, whichever is greater, and a second offense punishable by a fine of $5,000 or double the value of the product, whichever is greater. The bill also requires that, once convicted, the wildlife trafficker forfeit the wildlife products in his or her possession to the state for disposal via destruction or donation to an educational institution.
This is great news for elephants, New Jersey, and the U.S. as a whole as we attempt to bring an end to the poaching crisis and our country’s role in that. State efforts such as the legislation in New Jersey and the hopefully soon-to-be-signed legislation in New York are also the perfect complement to federal efforts to strengthen U.S. ivory laws.
As I was reminded on a recent trip to South Africa, where I took the photo above, elephants are simply incredible creatures. Words just can’t describe how amazing it is to watch them eat, play, fight, and nurse their young. They need all the help they can get and New Jersey has shown the country that it’s on board – hopefully the rest of the states will listen!
When I think summer, I think popsicles, swimming pools, and, since I live in DC, stifling humidity. The House Natural Resources Committee Republicans think: last chance to gut the Endangered Species Act before August recess and elections. Cue the recent... Read More >
May/June/July 2014 Legislative Threats to the Endangered Species Act
When I think summer, I think popsicles, swimming pools, and, since I live in DC, stifling humidity. The House Natural Resources Committee Republicans think: last chance to gut the Endangered Species Act before August recess and elections.
Cue the recent House passage of the hilariously named “21st Century Endangered Species Transparency Act” (H.R. 4315). As I’ve blogged before, this bill (which is an amalgamation of H.R. 4315, H.R. 4316, H.R. 4317, and H.R. 4318) would undermine the scientific process when it comes to decision-making under the Endangered Species Act; overburden the federal agencies that implement the Act like the Department of Interior, thereby preventing them from doing their job of saving species; and dissuade citizens from enforcing the Endangered Species Act.
The House also passed H.R. 4899 at the end of June, which puts energy development above everything else, including our endangered species by, among other things, aggressively leasing and drilling on federal lands without any consideration of the impacts to endangered or threatened plants and animals. And H.R. 4742, which would reauthorize the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) by going after bedrock laws including the Endangered Species Act.
Summer also means appropriations time. And since Republicans took control of the House, appropriations time means scores of unrelated policy riders on bills. This summer was no different with over 50 anti-environmental riders, including many that would do damage to wildlife. For instance, riders in the Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 5171) offered by Rep. Calvert (R-CA) would block current efforts to restrict the trade of illegal elephant ivory; prevent listing of the valley elderberry longhorn beetle under the Endangered Species Act; bar work focused on the potential listing of the greater sage grouse and the Gunnison sage-grouse under the ESA; and undermine the Interior Department’s efforts to recover certain types of endangered frogs. This bill hasn’t gone anywhere yet.
The Senate Defense Authorization bill also includes a provision (section 353) that exempts the Navy from both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act when it comes to sea otters off two military bases in California. Southern sea otters were nearly exterminated for their fur in the 1700s and 1800s. The California population has grown from of a group of just 50 survivors in Big Sur to approximately 2,000 today, but they still aren’t fully recovered and they need help. The military, like everyone else, should have to minimize its impacts on the species to the extent practicable, as the law states in order to pitch in on this recovery effort. This bill hasn’t moved yet either.
It looks like we'll have our work cut out for us when recess is over!
Last night, the South Portland, Maine City Council approved the Clear Skies Ordinance in a 6-1 vote, thereby prohibiting the bulk loading of crude oil, including tar sands, onto tankers on the waterfront, as well as the construction of new... Read More >
South Portland, Maine Hammers Nail into Coffin of Proposed Tar Sands...
Last night, the South Portland, Maine City Council approved the Clear Skies Ordinance in a 6-1 vote, thereby prohibiting the bulk loading of crude oil, including tar sands, onto tankers on the waterfront, as well as the construction of new related infrastructure in the city. The passage of this ordinance is another nail in the coffin of ExxonMobil’s Portland-Montreal tar sands pipeline, and a major victory for air quality in South Portland, for land and water in New England, and for our climate.
If reversed, the aging Portland-Montreal Pipe Line would complete the link from Alberta’s tar sands oil to an East Coast port – transporting tar sands from Montreal, Quebec through New England to South Portland, Maine, where it would be loaded onto tankers in Casco Bay for marine transport. Bulk loading tar sands onto tankers would increase air pollution, including of toxic air pollutants in South Portland. It also would require new infrastructure, including two 70-foot combustion smokestacks, such as those previously permitted by the city and state for Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s 2009 proposal to bulk load tar sands onto tankers. The smokestacks would emit volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants, like benzene, a known human carcinogen linked to leukemia, during the loading process. It is not right for the people of South Portland to have to face this kind of environmental and health threat; the South Portland City Council made the right decision last night in passing the Clear Skies Ordinance to ban the bulk loading of crude oil and construction of related infrastructure in South Portland.
While those promoting the ordinance were focused on the risks to South Portland from bulk loading tars ands, the passage of this ordinance also has broader regional, national and even international implications. Without being able to build the infrastructure to load tar sands crude oil onto tankers, it will not make sense for the pipeline company to reverse the pipeline. What’s more, across the continent, in Nebraska, in Maine, in British Columbia, communities are saying “no” to tar sands oil, because they are worried about the threat that it poses to their land, air, water and climate. They are succeeding in blocking tar sands pipelines, and the lack of pipeline capacity is forcing a slow-down of tar sands expansion, as my colleague Anthony Swift has written about.
In the last few months, two major proposed tar sands mines were canceled due to financial pressures caused in large part by pipeline capacity constraints and the uncertainty of proposed pipeline project developments, including Keystone XL. In June, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) lowered their projection of tar sands production in 2030 by 400,000 barrels per day. CAPP recognized that the largest factor in the tar sands industry’s ability to reach even this reduced production forecast is whether proposed pipelines come on in a rapid manner. And when discussing the tar sands industry’s pared down 2014 expansion forecast, CAPP’s Vice President Greg Stringham concluded, “The biggest uncertainty in this forecast is the timing associated with this [pipeline] capacity and whether or not they can deliver the capacity on the timelines they now propose.” This shows us yet again that there is so much opposition to other proposed tar sands pipelines that none of them are a guarantee – so that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would in fact drive significant tar sands expansion if approved.
Communities are right to be concerned about tar sands pipelines and the expansion of tar sands extraction. Tar sands pipelines are more likely to spill, and when they do spill, the spills can be impossible to clean up, as the heavy tar sands bitumen sinks, and the diluents that it must be mixed with to allow for pipeline transport evaporating and putting toxic chemicals into the air. In fact, this Friday will be the four-year anniversary of Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. When the spill occurred, community members like Susan Connolly and her children, who live near the spill, experienced a range of symptoms including burning in their eyes and throat, migraines, nausea, upset stomachs, lethargy, and a strange rash. To date, the clean-up has cost more than $1 billion, and it is unlikely that the river will ever be fully cleaned up, so that it continues to affect community member’s businesses and their ability to use the river recreationally.
Making fuels like gasoline and diesel from tar sands also causes more greenhouse gas emissions than making fuels from conventional oil, so that turning to tar sands sets us back on climate, wiping out gains such as the ones we are making with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Zero Emission Vehicle Memorandum of Understanding, and other local, state, regional and national greenhouse gas reduction efforts.
While the passage of the ordinance last night is a major victory worth celebrating, unfortunately, we cannot rest easy. The American Petroleum Institute has already threatened to bring a legal challenge to the Clear Skies Ordinance. In addition, while the Clear Skies Ordinance protects the people of South Portland from impacts like hazardous air pollution, there are other threats that remain. Without action to keep tar sands out of Maine and the Northeast, the region – which currently gets essentially zero gasoline derived from tar sands – could see tar sands grow to as much as 18% of our fuel mix by 2020. This would increase carbon pollution across the region by approximately 10 million metric tons and nearly wipe out the promised carbon reductions under the landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Governors of Northeast states need to take action to keep tar sands fuels out of the region, but today, we can celebrate.
To the South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert and to the South Portland City Council, I say thank you—for your tremendous leadership and courage in passing the Clear Skies Ordinance. This was an impressive response to the concerns of citizens with an open, deliberative, and thorough process to develop and consider this new ordinance and protect South Portland from a tar sands disaster.
Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally proposed limitations that would block the massive, ill-conceived Pebble Mine project -- the controversial proposal to mine gold and copper at the headwaters of the pristine Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery in Alaska that faces... Read More >
EPA Takes the Next Critical Step Toward Protecting Wild Salmon and Stopping...
Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally proposed limitations that would block the massive, ill-conceived Pebble Mine project -- the controversial proposal to mine gold and copper at the headwaters of the pristine Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery in Alaska that faces overwhelming local opposition. (85% of commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, 82% of Bristol Bay residents, and 62% of Alaskans oppose it.) This action by EPA is a critical step toward protecting Bristol Bay's salmon from the inevitable devastation that a large-scale mine would cause.
EPA formally invoked its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to "prohibit, restrict, deny or withdraw" an area at risk of "unacceptable adverse effects" on water, fisheries, wildlife, or recreation resources. Though EPA has clear legal authority to undertake this process, it does so rarely. As the agency explains:
EPA has used its Section 404(c) authority judiciously and sparingly, having completed only 13 Section 404(c) actions in the 42-year history of the CWA.
And this is a rare situation -- a uniquely ill-conceived mining project that unquestionably warrants EPA's attention. EPA should be applauded for responding to this reality, and to the repeated and urgent requests of the tribes and communities of Bristol Bay. The head of the watershed of the greatest salmon fishery on the planet is no place to gamble on one of the largest mining operations ever conceived. It is simply the wrong mine in the wrong place -- as Mitsubishi realized in 2011, as Anglo-American realized last September, and as Rio Tinto recognized in April.
Based on information provided by Northern Dynasty Minerals to investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, mining the Pebble deposit is likely to result in:
- A mine pit nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon.
- Mine waste that would fill a major football stadium up to 3,900 times.
- Massive mine tailings impoundments that would cover approximately 19 square miles and waste rock piles that would cover nearly nine square miles in an area with productive streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds important for salmon.
- A mining operation that would cover an area larger than Manhattan.
The agency's proposal is measured, solidly grounded in science, and directly responsive to the overwhelming local opposition to the project.
Now is the right time for this EPA action. The threat of repeated statements by foreign mining companies over the course of many years that a mine application is imminent has placed great stress on the people and economies of Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay residents and businesses have been held hostage by mining interests' control over the timing of public consideration of its mining plans. Final EPA action would free Bristol Bay from this looming menace.
It's time to say no to the Pebble Mine.
From July 13-15, 2014, the Governors of the six New England states, and Premiers of the five Eastern Canada provinces will meet at their annual conference, which will be hosted this year by New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, in Bretton... Read More >
New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers Should Take Action...
From July 13-15, 2014, the Governors of the six New England states, and Premiers of the five Eastern Canada provinces will meet at their annual conference, which will be hosted this year by New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. The annual conference provides the opportunity for the Governors and Premiers to discuss regional issues such as energy, transportation, climate change, and economic development. They can also vote on resolutions, and tee up discussions for their staff on regional committees to having during the year. While tar sands is not on the agenda for the official conference, there will be a “No Tar Sands!” People’s Conference and Rally on Sunday near the official conference venue, in which activists will call on the Governors and Premiers to take action to keep tar sands crude oil and tar sands-derived fuels out of the region.
Tar sands is the wrong path forward for New England and Eastern Canada for several reasons:
- The transportation of tar sands crude oil – via pipelines, rail, tankers and barges – presents increased risks compared with the transport of conventional crude oil, with an increased risk of spills, and with spills being more challenging to clean up when they do occur. Despite these risks, industry has been promoting several tar sands pipelines and expanded rail terminals to bring tar sands through the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic and Eastern Canada including ExxonMobil’s Portland-Montreal Pipe Line, and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline.
- What’s more, without action to keep tar sands out, tar sands-derived fuels will infiltrate the fuel supply of the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, growing to as much as 18% of the region’s fuel supply by 2020. This would wipe out important gains on regional climate change mitigation efforts. Due to the energy requirements for extracting and refining tar sands, tar sands-derived fuels cause, on average, 17% more greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally derived fuels when accounting for everything from extracting through burning the fuel.
- Finally, Alberta, Canada’s tar sands underlie an area of the Boreal forest roughly the size of Florida. Extracting tar sands causes a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution; destroys habitat for migratory birds, caribou and other species; and creates massive toxic waste lakes that leach into the Athabasca River and watershed. Communities downstream of extraction activities are experiencing high rates of rare cancers and other negative health effects that appear to be caused by tar sands operations. Developing a reliance on this high-impact fuel would make us complicit in this destruction.
Due to these major concerns about tar sands coming to and through New England, last month 25 groups, including NRDC, sent a letter to Governor Hassan and the other New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers expressing concerns about tar sands and calling for the Governors and Premiers to take action. The letter called for adoption of “a resolution to convene a committee of environmental agencies to develop standards and recommendations around fuel carbon intensity across the region” along with “a resolution to more fully investigate the threats associated with the transport and spills of diluted bitumen both by pipeline, rail, and barge.” (You can read the letter text below or see the full letter including signatories if you click on the hyperlink.)
While it was too late for tar sands to be added to the agenda, Governor Hassan sent an encouraging response letter to the signatories detailing the efforts she has taken to protect New Hampshire and the region from tar sands. She also wrote, “because this topic is of significant importance to the region and to New Hampshire, I will direct my representatives on the appropriate committees to raise these issues in the coming year.” And she states that “[a]t the regional level, in coordination with the Northeastern States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM), the regional association of northeastern state air agency directors, we are working to develop tools necessary to track the carbon intensity of petroleum fuels entering the region.”
These are important steps for creating a tar sands free future for the Northeast. While Governors and Premiers may not specifically be discussing tar sands next week, they will be discussing energy innovations. Decreasing the greenhouse gas impact of the transportation sector will require a reduction in energy demand through vehicle efficiency. At the same time, states must avoid the dirtiest fossil fuels, such as tar sands, and begin implementing policies that spur innovation in the clean energy sector. We hope this conference will set the stage for additional actions to develop clean energy and keep the Northeast tar sands free.
June 13, 2014
The Honorable Maggie Hassan
Governor of New Hampshire
2014 Chair of New England Governors-Eastern Canadian Premiers Conference
107 North Main Street
Concord, NH 03301
Dear Governor Hassan,
We write with respect to the upcoming New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers (NEG-ECP) Conference scheduled for July 13-15 this year in New Hampshire. We ask the Conference to confront growing public concern about the encroachment of tar sands into Eastern Canada and New England by pipeline, rail, barge, and as a refined fuel, and convene working committees to evaluate the threats posed by tar sands spills and evaluate standards for fuel carbon intensity in the region.
As you are likely aware, pipeline proposals in both the U.S. and Canada have focused significant public attention on the risks of transporting tar sands diluted bitumen through pipelines. Simultaneously, new research suggests that the annual influx of tar sands-derived fuels into the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region could have a substantial climate impact that would negate the carbon pollution reductions the U.S. Northeast region has sought under its landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Climate policies in Canada such as Quebec’s greenhouse gas cap and trade system could be undermined.
Together, the transport of tar sands diluted bitumen via pipeline and the consumption of tar sands as a refined fuel is a grave risk to the region. We believe the NGA-ECP Conference should provide state and provincial decision-makers with an opportunity to understand these risks and identify policy solutions to address these pressing issues.
Pipeline proposals to carry tar sands diluted bitumen
Public concern over the transport of diluted bitumen has grown considerably in the past several years. Many of the concerns have focused on the potential impact of a spill to waterways given that diluted bitumen has different chemical properties than conventional oil. Now that Enbridge’s Canadian Line 9 is approved to bring tar sands to Montreal, many in the U.S. believe that the Portland Pipe Line Corporation will request permission from the U.S. State Department to reverse the flow on the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line (PMPL) in order to transport tar sands. In response, dozens of communities in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Quebec have passed resolutions in opposition to a reversal. A spill of diluted bitumen from the PMPL pipeline could threaten drinking water supplies, wildlife, fishing and other water dependent industries, and public health across New England.
At the same time, TransCanada is moving ahead with its Energy East pipeline proposal which, if approved, would carry tar sands diluted bitumen and potentially impact hundreds of communities across all of Eastern Canada. Once diluted bitumen is loaded onto tankers there is also the possibility of a marine oil spill into both the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy. The pipeline would also have the climate pollution impact equivalent to adding seven million new cars to Canada’s roads.
An influx of tar sands into the region’s refined fuel mix
A new analysis indicates that by 2020, as much as 18 percent of the U.S. northeast region’s fuel supply could be derived from carbon-intensive tar sands - up from less than 1 percent in 2012. If that occurs, it would increase greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 10 million metric tons per year. This would offset the carbon pollution reductions that the region is seeking under its landmark Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative over the next five years. Unless states take immediate action to hold the line against growing carbon emissions, and boost efforts to support the clean fuels sector, the influx of tar sands fuel would undo years of progressive climate policy.
We ask the NEG-ECP adopt a resolution to convene a committee of environmental agencies to develop standards and recommendations around fuel carbon intensity across the region. Last year, the NEG-ECP passed Resolution 37-3, concerning transportation. This resolution built on priorities raised at the 2012 conference to facilitate a more sustainable transportation future and identified the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while exploring opportunities to advance the green economy through investments in clean, efficient, and sustainable transportation. A resolution at the 2014 conference addressing the encroachment of high carbon intensity fuels like tar sands in our transportation fuel mix is correlated to, and logically evolves from, the transportation resolutions adopted at the 2012 and 2013 conferences.
We also ask the conference adopt a resolution to more fully investigate the threats associated with the transport and spills of diluted bitumen both by pipeline, rail, and barge. Rapidly growing evidence shows that spills of diluted bitumen pose greater threats to water resources than conventional oils, with serious implications for emergency response and clean up. Major tar sands spills in Marshall, Michigan in 2010 and Mayflower, Arkansas in 2013 provide direct evidence of these unique challenges. Now is the time for state and provincial decision-makers to better understand the inherent risks of transporting diluted bitumen and options to confront and eliminate these risks.
We would also be pleased to have an opportunity to present our views and research on these issues and thank you for considering these recommendations.