Category Archives: Wildlife

Oil sands buyers and sellers

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Portia describes how the quality of mercy is twice blessed: “[i]t blesseth him that gives and him that takes”.

The oil sands are like the moral opposite of mercy – it is unethical to produce them, and unethical to consume them. It is unethical for the oil companies to dig up and sell such fuels, given what we know about climate change, and it is unethical for the buyers to purchase the fuels, largely for the same reason. Both buyers and sellers are complicit in a pattern of action that sells out future generations, in exchange for profits and cheaper fuels today. They are all knowingly imposing harm upon people all over the world, either in exchange for profits or in exchange for the benefit of using cheap fossil fuels.

In time, the oil sands industry may come to be seen as much like the asbestos industry: companies that push what they know to be a dangerous and harmful product, just because it is in their self interest to do so. Even worse, the companies do everything in their power to keep their industry unregulated. They fund phoney ‘grassroots’ groups that argue that the oil sands are wonderful, they run misleading advertising campaigns, they make campaign contributions to politicians, they make misleading claims about jobs, etc.

The oil sands and caribou

According to a recent paper by Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch, continued development of the oil sands threatens 11 different caribou herds: “The prospect of 10 of these 11 caribou herds supporting self-sustaining local populations in (the region) in the near future appear to be very, very low. With the accelerating pace of oil, gas and bitumen activities in the region … the prospect of all of these caribou herds supporting self-sustaining populations in the near future appear to be declining rapidly”.

Oil sands exports and oil spills

If Canada’s west coast becomes the gateway for oil sands exports to Asia, one undeniable risk is oil spills. These could occur along pipelines, as occurred recently in Alberta, or in the event that oil tankers run into difficulties.

With luck, the legitimate concern that oil exporting activities could contaminate the beautiful landscape of British Columbia could help to reduce the chances of B.C. becoming Alberta’s partner in digging up and selling some of the world’s most dangerous fuel.

Given that the Alberta government is dead-set on continuing to expand oil sands exports, it may fall to more responsible jurisdictions around that province to cut off access to markets.

Government mysteriously cancels investigation into oil sands environment impact

Canwest News Services has learned:

Federal politicians from the government and opposition benches have mysteriously cancelled an 18-month investigation into oilsands pollution in water and opted to destroy draft copies of their final report.

I’m not going to go over details as to why the oil sands are an environmental disaster, or why they need to be shut down in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. Instead, I want to point out that the destruction of this report simply constitutes a flagrant disregard for the public good by the current administration – and that this absolutely should be read as a sign of extreme corruption between business and the federal government. Canadian people’s interests are not served by covering up information about the environmental effects of the oil sands. The only interests served by avoiding decreases in the marketability of oil sands which could result from the publication of this report are those connected with short term business profit.

If anyone is in possession of the “ripped up” report (what, was it made on a typewriter?) is absolutely morally required to leak the document. No oath, no promise of secrecy overrides the democratic duty of a citizen expose extreme corruption and collusion.

Oil sands water impact report nixed

Two weeks ago, the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development of Canada’s Parliament abruptly cancelled a report on the impacts of oil sands development on water. Andrew Nikiforuk has written an article for The Tyee arguing that the risks are serious and regulation has been inadequate.

Special concerns have been raised about naphthenic acids – toxic substances that was nonetheless excluded from the list of toxic or harmful chemicals examined by the report. These substances take decades to break down, and have been shown to harm liver, heart, and brain functions in mammals, as well as harm wildlife.

All this is another example of how – after you tally up the health, environmental, and climate impacts – the oil sands are far less of a wealth generator than they appear to be. Rather than release a report that would deepen the awareness of Canadians on that issue, the committee has opted to cancel it and destroy all the drafts.

[Update: 5:17pm] I have written letters opposing this decision to the chair and vice-chairs of the committee: James Bezan, Bernard Bigras, and
David J. McGuinty. As always, any Canadian MP can be mailed for free at: House of Commons; Parliament Buildings; Ottawa, Ontario; Canada; K1A 0A6. The phone numbers for MP offices are also online.

Don’t Ignite the Lignite

Quite unintentionally, deficiencies in the quality of my video camera and the lighting of the establishment where this was filmed have made this video more anonymous than I planned. It has a bit of a ‘witness protection program’ vibe. My apologies about the annoying feedback in the audio.

At the same time, it lays out my current views on climate change and how to deal with it in just five minutes:

Obviously, it requires many simplifications to put that amount of information into a five minute movie. Even so, I think it is a fair reflection of my current thoughts, at least insofar as I would format them for an event of this type.

It would be very interesting to know what I am wrong about.

It would also be interesting to know which (if any) messages seem to be well conveyed.

The slides and speaking notes are also available:

Threats to the Great Barrier Reef

Writing for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sara Philips has come up with a clever blog post about the coal-carrying Chinese ship that recently ran aground on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. While this incident caused physical damage and polluted the water with oil and toxic paint, Philips correctly points out that, in the long run, the real threat to the reef comes primarily from the continued burning of fossil fuels, especially of the sort that the ship’s cargo comprised. Indeed, coral reefs are some of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems, where climate change is concerned. They are threatened both by rising temperatures and from the way in which carbon dioxide emissions make the oceans more acidic.

If Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is serious when he says that he takes “any threat to the Great Barrier Reef fundamentally seriously,” he should redouble his efforts to reverse Australia’s weakening commitment to climate change mitigation domestically, and its harmful international role as a major coal exporter.

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining: An American Tragedy

Mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining is one of America’s worst environmental crimes. Every day, across Appalachia, the coal industry literally blows the tops off the mountains: clear-cutting forests, wiping out natural habitats and poisoning rivers and drinking water. Not only are these mountains lost forever, but the heritage and the health of families across the region are being sacrificed. For a mere 7 percent of the nation’s coal, the tradeoff does not add up.

Rainforest Action Network is partnering with a community-based movement from Appalachia to compel the Environmental Protection Agency and other key agencies to ban the practice.

Impacts to Mountains and Forests

MTR is a mining practice where explosives are used to remove the tops of mountains and expose the small seams of coal that lie beneath. It is estimated the explosive equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb is detonated every week in Appalachia. Once blasted, the earth from the mountaintop is then dumped in the neighboring valleys.

Before mining can begin, tracts of deciduous forests are clearcut (often burned or sometimes illegally dumped into valley fills). These unique hardwood forests are some of the most biologically diverse in North America.

Impacts to Drinking Water and Human Health

MTR mining poses significant threats to water quality in Appalachia, despite the objectives and requirements of the Clean Water Act designed to protect our nation’s precious water supplies. According to a 2005 environmental impact statement, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried or contaminated.

After blasting has occurred, waste from mining operations is systematically dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams. This waste then releases toxic metals, killing life in streams and polluting ground water. Health problems such as cancer, liver and kidney disease, and skin rashes have been found in correlation with people who drink water from wells contaminated by coal mining. This problem was exacerbated in 2002 when the Bush Administration changed rules in the Clean Water Act, allowing waste material to be considered “fill”, effectively legalizing the dumping of toxic mining waste directly into Appalachian waterways.

Once coal is extracted, it is then washed and treated, resulting in waste water called coal sludge, a mix of water, coal dust, clay and toxic chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, selenium and chromium. Billions of gallons are then stored in vast, unlined impoundments or injected for storage in abandoned underground-mines.

Impoundments are often held in place by mining debris or earthen dams, making them unstable. Sludge dams have been known to fail. In October 2000, residents of Martin County, Kentucky suffered 306 million gallons of slurry entering their water supply. The disastrous spill was over 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill.

Mitigation and Regulation Efforts

A recent peer-reviewed report in the journal Science concluded that mountaintop mining has serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address.

While robust reclamation efforts are required for mountaintop removal sites, in practice, most sites receive little more than a spraying of exotic grass seed. Attempts to reclaim the land after MTR coal-mining operations generally result in abandoned, unmanaged and unproductive scrublands. Clear cutting and topsoil loss disrupts the absorption of rainfall, which has resulted in severe flash floods.

Impacts on Jobs and Clean Energy Opportunities

Coal companies use MTR mining methods because it allows for almost complete recovery of coal seams while significantly reducing the number of workers required compared to conventional methods. The coal-bearing counties of Appalachia are some of the poorest in the nation, despite the fact that some of the greatest wealth is being extracted from them.

The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. We must embrace a clean energy future for our economic survival as well as our environmental and public health. Diversification of the Appalachian economy is now more important than ever.

Appalachia has a wealth of clean energy resources that can be developed to provide new jobs and tax revenues, including wind, solar, low-impact hydro, and sustainable biomass. This development can especially support rural areas, those hardest hit by the declining economy. With political and financial leadership we could transition Appalachia from coal country to clean energy country.

The Way Forward

Polls demonstrate that most Americans oppose MTR removal coal mining.

RAN is demanding a moratorium on all new MTR permits, reversal of the Bush Administration rules changes to the stream buffer zone and fill rules, and strict enforcement of the Clean Water Act for existing MTR operations.