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.
This blog was drafted by Joshua Axelrod, NRDC legal consultant A recent report prepared for tar sands giant Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) raises new questions about the safety of the industry’s drilling (or in situ) operations. The new revelations cast... Read More >
Guest blog: Report on 9-month-long tar sands well blow out reveals systemic...
This blog was drafted by Joshua Axelrod, NRDC legal consultant
A recent report prepared for tar sands giant Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL) raises new questions about the safety of the industry’s drilling (or in situ) operations. The new revelations cast further doubt on the viability of the tar sands industry’s bullish predictions about the future of tar sands development in Northern Alberta. Among the report’s findings is the significant probability that CNRL’s high pressure steam extraction methods played a significant role in four tar sands underground spills so pressurized that tar sands oil had been bubbling to the surface for more than nine months into Canada’s Boreal Forest from CNRL’s Primrose in situ operation. These findings, along with rising production costs, the delay of pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the carbon intensity of in situ operations, and the fact that these well blowouts create risks to both surface and ground water raise serious questions about the pace of future development in the tar sands region.
Last summer, international attention was focused on the unmanageable risks of in situ (or drilling) tar sands development. On July 23, 2013, Mother Jones broke the news to Americans that an in situ tar sands operation in Cold Lake, Alberta, owned by CNRL, had already been leaking for nine weeks (Canadian media reported on the situation as early as July 2). Major American and international media outlets like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Reuters picked up the story. Other outlets like the Huffington Post and the Toronto Star published images of the mess that tar sands was making as it seeped into the surrounding forestland. Initially, regulators did little to focus attention the issue as we discussed here but international press coverage led to more direct oversight. Now, more than a year later, the leak appears to have stopped—but not before at least 311,000 gallons of oil leaked and 91,000 tons of soil and vegetation were removed.
As the leaks persisted, CNRL insisted that the cause was the existence of aging well bores that had been abandoned for years. As recently as March 6, 2014, in fact, CNRL’s CEO Steven Laut assured investors that old well bores were the cause and that the problem was “totally solvable.” CNRL’s own report on the cause of the leaks now shows that these claims were misleading and obscure a much more serious problem with the tar sands extraction technology currently being pioneered by CNRL.
CNRL’s technology, known as “high pressure cyclic steam stimulation” (HPCSS), is a new approach to the older CSS process where operators continuously inject super-heated, highly pressurized steam down a well bore to “soak” the tar sands reservoir until the bitumen begins to separate from the sand. This pressurized soaking process creates fractures through which bitumen then flows back to the well bore and is pumped to the surface (similar to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” which leads to the release of natural gas from underground deposits). The problem is, for HPCSS to work without causing a well blowout, the rock above the tar sands deposit must be strong enough to withstand the pressure created by the injected steam.
In CNRL’s report, several problems that threaten the future viability of HPCSS are highlighted. These include findings that vertical fractures created by the injection of pressurized steam may have provided the pathways to the surface that led to the extensive leaks. Other findings suggest that the shear pressure of the steam used was strong enough to lift “the overburden[,] resulting in a subsequent increase in vertical stress above the steaming area,” and that this resulting increase in stress may have contributed to the blowouts.
This latest development continues a string of problems for in situ operations, which have been touted by the tar sands industry as a “green” alternative to surface mining operations around Ft. McMurray because they require fewer surface disturbances. However, recent studies of the emissions and energy demands of in situ recovery methods suggest that extraction via steam may actually lead to a net energy loss (i.e., it takes more energy to get the tar sands out than will be produced after the tar sands are refined into fuel oils). Further, because of the excessive energy demands of in situ extraction, the method is highly carbon intensive and increasingly expensive as the costs of natural gas have risen in recent years. These challenges led the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) to reduce its 2030 production outlook from the tar sands by 400,000 barrels per day, with most of this reduction due to the scaling back of in situ operation plans.
As CNRL awaits the Alberta Energy Regulator’s final report on the Primrose well blowouts, it is time for the tar sands industry and those who regulate it to step back and consider the risks of unbridled development in an ecologically sensitive region. For others, this latest report once again highlights the environmental impact of the tar sands and gives yet another reason for President Obama to reject the expansion-enabling proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
A new study released by two Alberta First Nations communities in partnership with the University of Manitoba reports that certain carcinogens released in tar sands operations are being found in high levels in local wildlife. The study also reports a... Read More >
Tar sands operations tainting local foods according to study
A new study released by two Alberta First Nations communities in partnership with the University of Manitoba reports that certain carcinogens released in tar sands operations are being found in high levels in local wildlife. The study also reports a higher incidence of cancer among study participants, many of whom work in the tar sands industry, adding to evidence that these local communities suffer from higher rates of cancer. The Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille said, "This report confirms what we have always suspected about the association between environmental contaminants from oil sands production upstream and cancer and other serious illness in our community….We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report." The University of Manitoba study done in collaboration with the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations adds to growing body of scientific evidence that people living near tar sands operations are showing that serious health risks and problems. Projects like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which will help the ramp more tar sands production posing even greater health risks should be rejected by the U.S. government. And despite these documented dangers, the province of Alberta and the federal Canadian government have done too little to protect the local community’s health. Now is the time for more rigorous health monitoring and a follow up investigation into elevated cancer rates.
Suncor tar sands operations in northern Alberta, Credit Rocky Kistner
The report, “Environmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oil Sands for the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations in Northern Alberta,” was prepared by Dr. Stephane McLachlan of the University of Manitoba’s Environment Conservation Laboratory. Dr. McLachlan and his colleagues found elevated levels of the environmental contaminants arsenic, cadmium, mercury and selenium, as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the foods traditionally harvested by the First Nations in the region including moose, ducks, and beavers. PAHs often present serious risks to human health—some are known to damage DNA, others are carcinogens, and many impact human development. PAHs also typically bioaccumulate and remain present in the environment over long periods of time. The levels of PAHs found in the wildlife collected by local communities were higher than expected and occurred in higher concentrations than those found in similar studies conducted around the world that focused on contaminants in food.
The study evaluated wildlife harvested by community members by examining tissue samples from moose, ducks, muskrats, and beavers. According to the study, the wildlife had high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and selenium. The study noted that members of First Nations communities still widely consume these “country foods” including moose and ducks, although the study noted that community members have been reducing their consumption of these foods due to pollution concerns and a general transition away from the traditional lifestyle.
Researchers also interviewed local community members from Fort Chipewyan where participants voiced their concerns of a sharp decline in health and an alarming increase in cancers. Notably, many of those participants reporting cancer worked in the tar sands industry. A high incidence of cancer in the small community of Fort Chipewyan, which sits directly downstream of major tar sands development, has already been confirmed.
A 2009 study, commissioned by the governments of Alberta and Canada, noted a diagnosed cancer rate from 1995 to 2006 that was 30 percent higher than what would typically be expected for that period of time. Further, certain types of cancers -- biliary tract cancers, blood and lymphatic cancers, lung cancers in women, and soft tissue cancers – were all occurring at higher rates and expected. Additional scientific studies conducted around the world have linked elevated levels of these specific cancers to exposure to certain constituents in petroleum products and the chemicals produced in petroleum manufacturing. A more recent statistical review from the Alberta government still found higher rates of cancers than would be expected in a small community.
2014 Healing Walk convened by First Nations
Alberta’s Edmonton Journal agrees that First Nations are owed an independent study evaluating the higher rates of cancer. “Albertans have been promised ongoing, world-class environmental monitoring in the oilsands region. That same long-term commitment needs to be made to monitoring the health of residents within that region, too.”
The University of Manitoba report adds to the growing mound of evidence that people who live near tar sands operations in Canada face health risks from additional air and water pollution. NRDC has published a fact sheet containing the latest scientific information about the health threat from tar sands development, some of which is highlighted below:
- Due to expanded tar sands activity, scientists are noting an increased presence of pollutants in the ambient air near Fort McMurray (the epicenter of tar sands development) and to the south near upgrading facilities just outside of Edmonton, Alberta.
- A 2009 study published by the National Academy of Sciences showed that the snow and water in an area extending outward 30 miles from upgrading facilities at Fort McMurray contained high concentrations of pollutants associated with fossil fuels, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
- A follow up study in 2014, published by the National Academy of Sciences, modeled the PAH levels measured in the tar sands region and found that environmental impact studies conducted by the tar sands industry in support of further development have systematically underestimated PAH emission levels and thus did not adequately account for human health risks.
- A November 2013 issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment noted the presence of elevated levels of numerous hazardous air pollutants near major upgrading facilities just north of Edmonton. The study also noted elevated rates of leukemia and other cancers of the lymph and blood-forming systems in areas surrounding upgrading and petrochemical manufacturing facilities just north of Edmonton. Further, this study also noted that experts have found similar elevated risks in other populations living downwind of industrial facilities with similar emissions, which have also been linked to increased rates of leukemia and childhood lymphohematopoietic cancers.
- In the remote community of Peace River, citizens have complained about increased air pollutants and noxious odors from excavating tar sands including complaints of nausea, headaches, skin rashes, memory loss, joint pain, exhaustion, and respiratory problems, and have forced several families to leave the area. Alberta’s Energy Regulator has recently confirmed that these problems are linked to emissions from nearby tar sands operations.
- According to a 2012 study published by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers confirmed through lake sediment sampling and modeling that the presence of elevated levels of toxic PAHs can be traced to the major expansion of tar sands production that began in the 1980s. Some water bodies within the Athabasca watershed now exceed current Canadian standards for pollutants in sediment for seven PAHs, including benzo(a)pyrene, a chemical that has been linked to cancer, genetic damage, reproductive impacts including birth defects, and organ damage.
- Scientists analyzing lake sediments and snow samples have found an exponential increase in methylmercury levels within 30 miles of tar sands upgraders now being found in Alberta’s waterways and landscape. Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin that causes developmental and behavioral problems, including lower IQ in children, as well as cardiovascular effects in adults.
- Tailings ponds which collect toxic wastewater from tar sands mining operations contain multiple toxic chemicals including arsenic, benzene, lead, mercury, naphthenic acid, and ammonia. 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.
- Another study, published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, shows that extreme concentrations of PAHs present in tailings may lead to the evaporation of those PAHs into the ambient air. Further, the releases of PAHs into the ambient air from tar sands upgrading facilities discussed above are finding their way into the Athabasca River and its numerous tributaries.
The local communities involved in the report said that continued expansion of tar sands development would only worsen the impacts they currently face. The report contains a series of recommendations to reduce the impacts of heavy metals and PAHs from tar sands operations and to increase meaningful involvement by these communities in future research. In particular, the communities have asked for a long-term baseline health study and to better document the relationship between cancer and employment in the tar sands industry. ACFN Chief Allan Adam said, "It’s frustrating to be constantly filling the gaps in research and studies that should have already been done. This demonstrates the lack of respect by industry and government to effecting address the First Nations concerns about impacts our Treaty rights and the increases in rare illnesses in our community. We need further independent studies done by internationally credible institutions like the World Health Organization.”
Today is the publication date for Joshua Horwitz’ War of the Whales, a true story brilliantly told about the U.S. Navy’s decades-long war on whales and other marine mammals by its reckless use of high intensity active sonar. The book... Read More >
Blue Whales, Collateral Damage, and the U.S. Navy's Avoidable War on Whales
Today is the publication date for Joshua Horwitz’ War of the Whales, a true story brilliantly told about the U.S. Navy’s decades-long war on whales and other marine mammals by its reckless use of high intensity active sonar. The book is compelling, it’s comprehensive, it’s ground-breaking -- and it’s infuriating.
It’s infuriating because the Navy’s infliction of lethal and other serious harm to whales and other marine animals, many of them already threatened or endangered, is avoidable -- if only the Navy would choose to avoid it.
No one disputes – not the Navy, not regulators, not scientists, not conservationists – that the surest way to prevent or reduce this needless torture is to avoid the areas most important to whales’ survival. Areas essential to breeding, calving, feeding, and migrating can be identified, and, during the months the animals are there, they can be protected – if only the Navy would plan, during those months, to conduct its testing and training elsewhere.
Take, for example, the magnificent endangered blue whale, running some hundred feet long and weighing in at 200 tons. It is the largest animal ever to have lived on earth, cut down from hundreds of thousands to a few thousand animals by centuries of whaling, with its Pacific Ocean population hardly beginning to recover.
Of all the places blue whales travel, one ranks among the most important. Located just off the southern California coast in the Channel Islands chain, it is the Cortes Bank, a submerged island – famous for its 100-foot “big wave” surfing. There the whales feed on dense patches of krill, the tiny crustaceans that sustain them; the foraging is so good that more than 700 of these endangered animals reliably make the journey each year.
Unfortunately, although the Navy knows all about the blue whales at Cortes Bank, it has stubbornly and unreasonably insisted that this critically important feeding ground be included within its mammoth Southern California range complex for sonar testing and training. Among a wide range of potential harms, scientists have found that high-powered Navy sonar disrupts blue whale feeding, halting their deep-foraging dives, displacing them from krill patches, and silencing their calls.
The request by the California Coastal Commission and others to keep sonar and explosives training out of this vital habitat when the whales are in residence has fallen on deaf ears at the Navy. And, as a result, NRDC has been forced to go to court yet again to force the Navy to listen to reason.
Over the next five years, the Navy plans nearly 300,000 hours of sonar use as well as other training activities in our U.S. coastal waters. By the Navy’s own estimate, it will inflict harm 31.4 million times on the whales and other marine mammals that live in the region, including nearly 1,000 deaths, more than 5,000 instances of permanent hearing loss or other permanent injury, and millions of instances of temporary hearing loss and other biologically significant disturbance.
The Navy’s indifference isn’t necessary to secure our national defense. Endangered whales and other marine life shouldn’t have to die for practice.
Tell the Navy that its war on whales must stop. Take action now.
On March 15, 2000, a seldom-seen species of deep-diving whales began stranding along the coast of Great Abaco Island, in the northern Bahamas. That event—the first naval sonar mortalities to be witnessed by humans—and the struggle that followed to determine... Read More >
War of the Whales
On March 15, 2000, a seldom-seen species of deep-diving whales began stranding along the coast of Great Abaco Island, in the northern Bahamas. That event—the first naval sonar mortalities to be witnessed by humans—and the struggle that followed to determine what had happened and hold the U.S. Navy to account, is the subject of the new release War of the Whales, by Josh Horwitz. It's an Amazon "Book of the Month" for July, it's been splendidly reviewed, it's suspenseful and moving and fascinating in equal measure, and I would strongly recommend it to readers of this blog even if my dear colleague Joel Reynolds weren’t a prominent figure in the story. (Full disclosure: I also figure in the text, albeit secondarily.)
Much of the story is devoted to Ken Balcomb, a devoted researcher and ex-Navy man who’d spent most of the previous decade scouring the waters off Abaco for beaked whales. One of the first beaked whale strandings that day occurred in his backyard: it is a piece of serendipity that haunts the book. When Balcomb is told by a fisherman, after fighting for hours to coax the first whale back to sea, that another one has turned up a few miles off, he understands that something has gone terribly wrong.
Over the ensuing days, he dashes around the islands trying to save whales, studies their bodies on the beaches, and in a gruesomely funny scene inveigles a local lobsterman to preserve the evidence in a restaurant freezer. And when he hears about other stranded animals—two minke whales from across the Providence Channel, a beaked whale mother and calf found on Grand Bahama—with more reports coming in, he decides on a hunch to call an old colleague at the Navy. Then he takes up a small float plane to search for carcasses on the outlying islands and cays, and spots a Navy destroyer.
What soon emerges is a profile in the conscience of a scientist. Balcomb comes to believe that the Navy may be responsible, that the powerful mid-frequency sonar systems designed to hunt submarines over hundreds of squares miles of ocean may have injured his population of beaked whales and driven them ashore. He is intent on a full investigation and begins worrying, not without reason, that the Navy is soft-pedaling the process. As he begins to push from inside, Balcomb is increasingly cold-shouldered by colleagues and then frozen out of the investigation; after he reluctantly decides to join a press conference to tell the public what he knows, he becomes persona non grata. But he persists, at a cost to his reputation, his personal life, and his sense of self, torn by an abiding love for the Navy.
War of the Whales is partly about what makes people like Ken Balcomb become agents for change in the world. One would like to think that scientists, with their commitment to truth, would be among those who naturally take up the mantle. Yet science is an inherently conservative enterprise. Like all of our professions, it has an economy, an organization, a loose form of hierarchy; and it compels those who practice it to speak in bloodless language even about matters of life and death. The same is true of the law, of course, and scholars like Martha Nussbaum and jurists like Sonia Sotomayor have raised all kinds of hackles by insisting on a place for empathy in the courtroom.
Balcomb, it turns out, was motivated by truth, but also in no small part by empathy. As he said in a wonderful recent article on the book in Psychology Today, his “deciding moment” came during that first stranding in the Bahamas. His first thought was to seize the opportunity and conduct hearing tests on this rarely encountered whale, while it was still alive; his second was to “collect the specimen” because it would surely die; but almost immediately, as he smelled the whale’s breath and touched it and understood it had a right to live, he became committed to its survival.
For me, the emotional climax of War of the Whales is an epiphany, experienced by Balcomb as he reads an abstruse government report, about what happened that day in the Bahamas—from the whales’ point of view. The animals are hit by pressure waves as they dive, try to fight through the “funneled noise” near the water’s surface, become disoriented; some head for shore and turn food for sharks in the shallows. In a way, the book replicates the burst of empathy that Balcomb had on the beach. Stranding investigations are about cause and effect. But in showing us, based on the best available evidence, what the Navy’s sonar transit might have been like for the whales that suffered through it, the book reminds us of the dignity of the individual animal.
In 2012*, California’s Mendocino and Humboldt counties contracted with Wildlife Services – the rogue federal agency responsible for killing 4 million animals last year – to “control” their wildlife. The result? 636 animals dead in just 365 days, including coyotes,... Read More >
Groups Ask California's Mendocino & Humboldt Counties to STOP Hiring...
In 2012*, California’s Mendocino and Humboldt counties contracted with Wildlife Services – the rogue federal agency responsible for killing 4 million animals last year – to “control” their wildlife. The result? 636 animals dead in just 365 days, including coyotes, black bears, mountain lions, gray and red foxes, and numerous other species.
And that’s just in two of California’s 58 counties—in California, as a whole, Wildlife Services kills tens of thousands of animals each year. In 2008, for example, the agency killed a total of 79,751 animals in the state.
(C) Fish and Wildlife Service
Not only is such indiscriminate, large-scale killing of wildlife inhumane and destructive to California’s ecosystems– but we also think it’s illegal under the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”) and California’s Public Trust Doctrine.
That’s why we just sent a letter led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and also joined by Project Coyote, Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Welfare Institute, and the Mountain Lion Foundation, to the Board of Supervisors in both counties asking them to end their contracts with Wildlife Services and use their funds to implement non-lethal predator control programs instead. For example, they can pay for electric fencing and guard dogs for ranchers—two nonlethal methods of livestock-predator conflict prevention that have proven extremely effective. Indeed, that’s what Sonoma County did last year after ALDF sent them a similar letter. And since Marin County canceled its contract with Wildlife Services 14 years ago, the County has seen 62% decrease in livestock predation at 1/3 of the former cost!
Californians, and Americans at large, don't need Wildlife Services to kill predators in order to ranch successfully -- let's hope Mendocino and Humboldt Counties realize this!
*2012 is the last year for which we have complete data. We have requested complete data for 2013.
A series of recent industry announcements is pouring cold water on the argument that tar sands development will happen at the same pace and scale with or without major infrastructure projects like Keystone XL. In recent months, two major tar... Read More >
Tar sands expansion cools down without Keystone XL
A series of recent industry announcements is pouring cold water on the argument that tar sands development will happen at the same pace and scale with or without major infrastructure projects like Keystone XL. In recent months, two major tar sands mines have been canceled, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) have substantially reduced their forecasted rates of tar sands expansion, and rising costs have caused an investor exodus for a number of proposed projects. Even as increasing breakeven costs push tar sands expansion projects beyond the realm of economic viability, tar sands by rail to the Gulf Coast continues to prove to be more expensive than predicted. Industry recognizes that its production forecasts cannot be realized unless it gets all of the major proposed tar sands pipelines it currently proposes as well as an expansion of rail infrastructure. These recent revelations demonstrate many of the flawed assumptions behind the State Department’s environmental review of Keystone XL. It is increasingly clear that Keystone XL will enable a substantial expansion of tar sands production and the climate impacts associated with that expansion.
“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,” Greg Stringham, Vice President of Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, June 9, 2014
New tar sands projects have already proven far more economically marginal than the State Department assumed in its environmental review of Keystone XL. Two major proposed tar sands mines have been cancelled due to deteriorating market conditions, including Shell’s 200,000 barrel per day (bpd) Pierre River Mine and Suncor and Total’s 160,000 bpd Josyln mine. After announcing the cancelation of the Josyln mine, Total’s CEO observed:
“Costs are continuing to inflate, when the oil price -- and specifically the netbacks for the oilsands -- are remaining stable at best, thus, squeezing the margins. We see that this situation cannot be sustainable in the long term," Andre Goffart, Total CEO, May 29, 2014
The tar sands industry doesn’t expect the problem of growing costs to go away any time soon. In its most recent forecast, CAPP reduced its projection of tar sands expansion in 2030 by nearly half a million barrels per day over last year’s estimate, citing increasing costs and pipeline constraints.
Of particular interest, the majority of the reductions come from new in situ production projects. In situ production projects, which use steam and other chemicals to access deeper tar sands reserves, are even more carbon intensive that tar sands mines but are typically lower cost. However, in situ projects are now facing a double blow from rising capital costs and increasing natural gas prices. CAPP is now forecasting that over 300,000 bpd of planned in situ projects won’t move forward by 2030.
Facing rising costs and lackluster returns, several major in situ proposals are already facing challenges. Huksy’s 80,000 bpd Sunrise in situ project has faced significant cost inflation and serious difficulty obtaining the necessary financing to move forward. The problem with declining financing can be seen across the industry, as investment in tar sands expansion in 2013 was little more than half that in 2012. As increasing costs continue to squeeze already thin margins, the problem of declining investment is likely to contiune.
This is a dramatically different picture of the industry than that painted in the State Department’s analysis of the Keystone XL. In its assessment, State assumed that in situ expansion projects would not be impacted by constrained pipeline capacity unless oil prices declined below $70 per barrel. In reality, in recent months many tar sands projects – both mines and in situ projects – have proven economically marginal with global oil prices well in excess of $100 per barrel. Meanwhile, the tar sands industry recognizes that rising production costs are likely to reduce rates of tar sands expansion in coming decades, as is reflected in CAPP’s 2014 forecast. As Peter Tertzakian, the Chief Energy Economist at ARC Financial Corp. in Calgary noted:
“A barrel of oil priced at $110 (U.S.) in world markets sounds high, but paperwork filed by chief financial officers is not convincing shareholders that investing ten-plus billion dollars into far-flung oil fields is worth the growing risks.”
For an industry for which rising production costs are already pushing proposed expansion plans beyond the edge of profitability, higher transportation costs are not a feasible option. And there is little doubt that tar sands by rail has proven substantially more expensive than moving tar sands by pipeline. According to RBN Energy, shipping tar sands by rail “costs a minimum of $15/Bbl more than by pipeline – resulting in lower netbacks for the producer versus pipelines.” That’s a minimum for $15 per barrel from the bottom line for projects that are already proving unable establish they can make a profit shipping by pipeline.
Perhaps that’s why tar sands by rail shipments to the Gulf Coast haven’t taken the trajectory of crude by rail from North Dakota or that predicted by State in past environmental reviews. After years of pipeline constraints, shipments of heavy Canadian crude to the Gulf by rail have failed to reach substantial volumes. An analysis of the Energy Information Administration’s crude import data shows that heavy Canadian crude shipments to the Gulf by rail and by barge only reached 50,000 bpd in April. For the most part, those volumes were being shipped by smaller tar sands producers that would not have access to Keystone XL and therefore would not be taken off the rails by the proposed tar sands project.
It’s important to note that even CAPP’s lowered forecast assumes that all of the major proposed tar sands pipelines move forward and a substantial amount of rail infrastructure is added. As shown in the graph below, CAPP assumes that all tar sands expansion projects will be approved and built over the next three and a half years. There are significant obstacles to each of these projects moving forward – and CAPP’s forecast shows that the failure of any one of these projects is likely to have substantial impact on tar sands expansion. With both Keystone XL and the Alberta Clipper expansion providing over 1.2 million bpd of capacity in the shortest amount of time, it is difficult to argue that these projects aren’t critical for enabling the tar sands industry’s expansion plans. In fact, CAPP recognizes that the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is the linchpin for the expansion of the tar sands and the associated carbon emissions:
“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,” Mr. Stringham, Vice President, CAPP
Source: CAPP, Crude Oil Forecast, Markets and Transportation, June 2014, pg. 34
Of course, CAPP’s forecast illustrates a fundamental problem with our pipeline approval process. Earlier last week, eight leading scientists and economists published an opinion article in Nature magazine calling for a moratorium on tar sands expansion and the highlighting the need to consider proposals to build long term tar sands infrastructure based on their collective global impacts to climate, water and local communities.
Recent events have shown that the reckless expansion of the tar sands planned by industry is far from inevitable. Even at today’s high oil prices, many tar sands expansion projects are already economically marginal at best. Keystone XL and other major pipeline proposals are necessary to enable the tar sands industry’s expansion plans and the significant carbon emissions associated with those plans. Keystone XL represents a long term commitment to the expansion of some of the world's most carbon intensive crude. It is inconsistent with our nation's climate goals and would only further enable Canada's failure to honor its international climate commitments.
As the economists and scientists calling for a moratorium on North American tarsands development write, "decisions made in North America will reverberate internationally, as plans for the development of similar unconventional reserves are considered worldwide.”
(C) Fish and Wildlife Service Kevin Shea, the Administrator of the USDA’s Animal Plants and... Read More >
Why Is the Wildlife Services Administrator So Proud?
(C) Fish and Wildlife Service
Kevin Shea, the Administrator of the USDA’s Animal Plants and Health Inspect Services, which houses “Wildlife Services” — a program responsible for killing millions of animals a year —released a letter defending his agency yesterday.
According to Shea, while he has had a few opportunities over the last few years to counter negative publicity regarding his agency, he hasn’t “been able to write as much to defend Wildlife Services as [he'd] like . . .”
My question is: what’s there to defend?
While Administrator Shea asserts that false information has been used to vilify his agency, the information he cites is actually true.
- The letter asserts that predators represent a very small percentage of the animals Wildlife Services removes each year. While it’s true that the number of predators Wildlife Services does not match the number of birds it kills, this often-repeated statement obscures the real problem: Wildlife Services’ own reporting indicates that it kills 98% of the big carnivores like wolves, foxes, bears, and mountain lions that it interacts with.
- The letter asserts that Wildlife Services is “fully transparent about all of [its] work—both lethal and nonlethal.” But examples showing otherwise are endless. A recently leaked audit shows that Wildlife Services recently lost $12 million dollars—it simply can’t find it. NRDC’s report Fuzzy Math shows that "most economic analyses of predator control done by Wildlife Services ...are inconsistent with economic analysis guidelines used by most federal agencies," and often contain fundamental accounting errors. And, as they’ll tell you themselves, even Reps. DeFazio and Campbell have repeatedly been denied information they’ve requested from Wildlife Services.
- The letter states that Wildlife Services is comprised of wildlife professionals who are “fully accountable to Congress and the public, comply with all laws, and are dedicated to preserving native ecosystems.” He can’t be talking about Jamie Olson, who posted pictures on Twitter (taken while on official duty) of his hunting dogs mauling a coyote caught in a leg-hold trap or Russell Files who intentionally captured his neighbor’s dog in multiple leg-hold traps, also while on duty. And he can’t be talking about the supervisors of the former Wildlife Services employees in films like NRDC’s Wild Things and Predator Defense’s Exposed, who were instructed not to report nontarget kills—in the words of one, to “shoot, shovel, and shut up.” So who is he talking about exactly?
- The letter asserts that the agency's National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC) devotes the majority of its research funding to the development or improvement of nonlethal wildlife damage management tools and methods. However, NWRC’s accomplishments report for 2013, lists only 2 studies focused on nonlethal predator control out of its 15 research projects for 2013 and less than 10 research papers on the subject out of over 100.
- The letter asserts that the numbers of animals killed are a very small percentage of their overall populations in the United States and that Wildlife Services is not endangering any native wildlife population in our country. But that’s not true. For example, this spring, a Wildlife Services employee killed a Mexican Wolf. There are only about 83 Mexican wolves left in the wild, so the removal of each and every individual has a huge impact on the population. Moreover, since when is whether a federal agency is killing so many animals that it is endangering the entire population the relevant test of the ecological harm they may be causing?
To be fair, NRDC agrees that some of the work Wildlife Services does—such as invasive species control—is important to preserving our natural resources. But when it comes to their predator control program, you’ve got to wonder…based on all of the above, what Shea is so proud of?