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Alberta proposes new climate change plan that caps emissions

The Canadian province of Alberta, holder of the world’s third-largest oil reserves, has proposed a new climate change plan to give oil-producing companies room to grow while cutting carbon emissions, experts and stakeholders said.

Long criticized as a source for “dirty oil” because most of the reserves are heavy bitumen deposits found in the province’s oil sands, Alberta’s government created an unlikely partnership between oil industry executives, indigenous leaders and prominent environmentalists to forge the accord.

The proposal comes as world leaders prepare to discuss plans to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels at a summit in France starting Nov. 30.

It also came as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with provincial and territorial leaders to hammer out Canada’s position at the meeting, to be held at Le Bourget, north of Paris.

“I’m convinced that the oil sands CEOs understand that you can’t be the high cost, high carbon producer in the world anymore,” said Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Alberta-based Pembina Institute.

“It was all a very tight timeline, because obviously, the premier wanted this announcement in the bag… before she goes to Paris,” he added.

The oil sands, natural deposits of tar-like heavy oil, are a key driver of the Canadian economy and put the province’s reserves behind only Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Environmentalists have criticized the industry’s energy intensive production process, which makes it Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Whittingham said many senior company executives have accepted, in part due to lower global oil prices, that they must reduce their carbon footprint as well as high production and energy costs in order to be more successful. To that end, the plan foresees an end to coal-fired power generation and a carbon price of C$30 ($22.49) per tonne.

The proposal also includes exemptions for upgrading facilities to encourage new investments within Alberta and comes after Premier Rachel Notley’s government, which won an election in May to end 44 years of Conservative rule, was stung with the United States’ rejection of TransCanada Corp’s Keystone XL pipeline. Notley called that decision a “kick in the teeth.”

Paul Boothe, who was the top bureaucrat in Canada’s federal environment department as it developed the country’s emissions standards for coal-fired power plants and its attempt to draft similar oil and gas regulations, said Alberta has taken an important first step with the plan.

He said the proposal helps firms make a transition with what he described as “subsidies” for the best-performing companies.

“Basically, it gives back to (companies), some of the carbon tax that they pay,” said Boothe, now an economics professor at the University of Western Ontario. “The least-emitting firms do the best, and the top-emitting firms don’t do as well… So I think that frankly, the oil and gas industry did very well in this announcement.”

At least six energy companies – Canadian Natural Resources Ltd , Cenovus , Enbridge Inc , Royal Dutch Shell Plc , Suncor Energy and TransCanada Corp – publicly supported the plan.

Two other companies – Imperial Oil Ltd and Canadian Oil Sands Ltd – declined to say whether they supported or opposed the proposal. Husky Energy Inc said it would continue to work constructively with the province.

“What’s critically important here is there’s no cap on production, it’s a cap on emissions,” said Cenovus president Brian Ferguson in a CBC radio interview.

Notley must still unveil full details about how much space each company would get in a proposed 100 million ton annual cap on oil sands carbon emissions – an increase of about 40 percent above current annual emissions – as well as incentives to eliminate pollution from coal-fired power plants by 2030.

“These things don’t pop up overnight,” said Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips at a news conference in Edmonton on Monday. “They are the product of negotiations and I think that what we have been able to achieve here is an historic agreement and a significant path forward to de-escalate conflict over Alberta’s energy resources.”

Study: Offshore wind v. offshore drilling

Offshore wind could produce twice the number of jobs and twice the amount of energy as offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, according to the environmental group Oceana.

The group challenges recent claims by the oil and gas industry that opening the East Coast to offshore drilling would lead the United States to energy independence, generate millions of dollars in revenue for states and create thousands of jobs.

Oceana said in its analysis, the benefits projected by the industry are exaggerated, due to the inclusion of oil and gas resources that are not economically recoverable. Industry estimates also rely on an assumption of a state revenue-sharing system that does not exist.

Oceana, in a report released in mid-January, also finds that offshore oil and gas development along the Atlantic could put at risk some of the nearly 1.4 million jobs and over $95 billion in gross domestic product that rely on healthy ocean ecosystems, mainly through fishing, tourism and recreation.

Other key findings:

• In 13 years, offshore wind could generate more energy than could be provided by all of the economically recoverable offshore oil and gas resources.

• In the next 20 years, offshore wind could create about 91,000 more jobs than offshore drilling — about double the job creation potential of offshore oil and gas.

• A modest and gradual development of offshore wind on the East Coast over the next 20 years could generate enough energy to power over 115 million households.

Obama vows to veto a Keystone XL bill

President Barack Obama has pledged to veto a bill to force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The White House announcement came as the new Republican-led Congress was sworn in, with GOP leaders promising to make Keystone a top priority in the early part of the session.

“It’s encouraging to see President Obama stand up to the bullies in Congress who want to ram this project through,” said Peter Galvin, director of programs at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Keystone would be a disaster for our climate and wildlife, so here’s hoping this is his first step toward killing this project once and for all.”

The president already said he won’t approve Keystone XL if it significantly exacerbates the problem of carbon pollution. The administration’s statement on Jan. 6 sets up a likely showdown with Congress.

“This is the moment where we need President Obama to stand strong and on the right side of history,” Galvin said. “Keystone and projects like it have driven us into the climate crisis. The first step toward getting us out of this hole is to stop digging deeper.”

On a daily basis, the proposed pipeline would carry up to 35 million gallons of oil strip-mined from Canada’s “tar sands.” The pipeline would cross the Midwest and deliver oil to the Gulf of Mexico, where opponents say much of it would be exported to other countries.

Along the way the pipeline would cut through rivers, streams and prime wildlife habitat for at least 12 threatened and endangered species, including whooping cranes and pallid sturgeon, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Strip-mining of oil from Alberta’s tar sands also is destroying tens of thousands of acres of boreal forest and polluting hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the Athabasca River, in the process creating toxic ponds so large they can be seen from space.

Extraction and refinement of tar sands oil produces twice as many greenhouse gases per barrel than conventional oil and represents a massive new source of fossil fuels that leading climate scientist Dr. James Hansen has called “game over” for our ability to avoid a climate catastrophe.

TransCanada’s existing Keystone I tar sands pipeline has reportedly leaked at least 14 times since it went into operation in June 2010, including one spill of 24,000 gallons. The State Department’s environmental reviews have pointed out that spills from Keystone XL are likely to occur, estimating that there could be as many as about 100 spills over the course of the pipeline’s lifespan.

350.org founder Bill McKibben, responding to the White House announcement, said, “This is a tribute to the millions of people who have made this one of the center pieces of a fast growing climate movement. So far their desire to protect the land and climate have been a match for the fountains of dirty money that constitute the oil industry’s only real argument.”

Rainforest Action Network’s climate program director, Amanda Starbuck, commented, “This is a testament to the dedication and resolve of millions of grassroots activists who have for years fought to stop this pipeline, against all odds. Together this movement has marched, written letters, sat in at the White House and along the route of the pipeline, and self-organized a large-scale network ready to do whatever it takes to win a rejection on Keystone. It’s an important day for the climate and for communities when the President decides to side with the people over the fossil fuel corporations who are wrecking our climate for profit.”

Rainforest Action Network has been fighting the KXL pipeline since 2009. With partners CREDO and the Other 98 percent, RAN organized the Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance Network, which has trained thousands of people in civil disobedience. To date, almost 100,000 people have signed the Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance, and have committed to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to stop the pipeline.

Cruise ships dump a billion gallons of sewage in ocean

Cruise ships dumped more than a billion gallons of sewage in the ocean this year, much of it raw or poorly treated, according to federal data analyzed by Friends of the Earth. The activsit group, releasing its annual report card on cruise ships, called for stronger rules to protect oceans, coasts, sea life and people.

The report shows that some of the 16 cruise lines graded are slowly getting greener; but more than 40 percent of the 167 ships still rely on 35-year-old waste treatment technology. Such systems leave harmful levels of fecal matter, bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants in the water. By law, wastewater dumped within 3 nautical miles of shore must be treated, but beyond that ships are allowed to dump raw sewage directly into the ocean.

In a reversal from prior years of cooperation and transparency, all 16 major cruise lines refused — through their industry association, Cruise Lines International Association — to respond to Friends of the Earth’s requests for information on their pollution-reduction technologies. So the 2014 Cruise Ship Report card contains a new category — “Transparency,” in which every cruise line received an “F” grade.

“By working to stifle the Cruise Ship Report Card, the industry attempted to shield itself from continued scrutiny of its environmental practices, and obscure data from conscientious consumers who would make different choices based on how a cruise ship or line performs on the report card,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director for Friends of the Earth.

“It’s time for the cruise industry to stop trying to hide the dirty ships in its fleet,” said Keever.

Friends of the Earth’s report card grades cruise lines on four criteria: sewage treatment technology; whether ships can plug into shore-based power and if they use cleaner fuel than required by U.S. and international law; compliance with Alaska’s water quality regulations to protect the state’s coast; and transparency which is a new criteria this year.

Disney Cruise Line, based in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, was ranked as the most environmentally responsible line, earning an A for sewage treatment. Its overall grade would have remained an A if it would have responded to our requests for information but this year it received a C plus.

At the other end of the scale, Carnival Cruise Lines of Doral, Florida — which has the world’s largest fleet of 24 cruise ships but only two with advanced sewage treatment technology —- received an F for sewage treatment again this year. Carnival Lines’ parent company, Carnival Corp. & PLC of Miami and London, also operates six other lines graded by the report card and all seven lines were downgraded for refusal to respond to Friends of the Earth.

“As the industry leader, Carnival Corp. has to step up its environmental game throughout all of its different lines,” said Keever. “No wonder Carnival Corp. refuses to respond to Friends of the Earth or be completely honest with its customers when it continues to use outdated technology that pollutes our oceans and threatens our marine ecosystem health, sea life and all of us.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says an average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew produces about 21,000 gallons of sewage a day — enough to fill 10 backyard swimming pools in a week. That adds up to more than 1 billion gallons a year for the industry — a conservative estimate, since some new ships carry as many as 8,000 passengers and crew and the report card doesn’t include the entire worldwide fleet.

In addition, each ship generates and dumps about eight times that much “graywater” from sinks, showers and baths, which can contain many of the same pollutants as sewage and significantly affects water quality.

Cruise ships are also responsible for significant amounts of air pollution from the dirty fuel they burn. Even at the dock, cruise ships often run dirty diesel engines to provide electrical power to passengers and crew.

According to the EPA, each day an average cruise ship is at sea it emits more sulfur dioxide than 13 million cars and more soot than 1 million cars. Starting in 2015, cleaner fuel standards in the U.S. and Canada will reduce the amount of sulfur emitted by each ship about 97 percent and the amount of soot by 85 percent, in addition to the interim cleaner fuel standards already in place in North America.

“This is an industry worth billions of dollars that could install the most advanced sewage treatment and air pollution reduction technology available,” said Keever.

Frac sand mining threatens health, welfare in Wisconsin

Victoria Trinko hasn’t opened the windows in her Wisconsin farmhouse in two years. And when she goes outdoors on the farm her family has operated in Chippewa County since 1936, she often wears a mask.

Trinko lives less than a mile from a frac sand mining operation — and that’s nothing like living less than a mile from a sandy beach.

There has been a lot of attention to the harms associated with the hydraulic fracturing method of gas and oil extraction, but much less focus on related industries. Fracking involves intensive use of chemicals, water and fuel at drilling sites, as well as extensive build-out of pipelines and the heavy use of transportation fuel for trucks, barges and train engines. It produces huge volumes of liquid waste. And fracking requires enormous volumes of fine-particle sand found in certain regions of the country, including Wisconsin and Minnesota.

A frac sand mining operation began in 2011 near Trinko’s farm. Throughout the summer and fall of that year, Trinko, a town clerk for Cooks Valley, raised concerns at local meetings. The “dust” from the mining clung to her clothes. Grit coated her teeth. Whatever she was breathing, it irritated her throat and damaged her respiratory system.

In a raspy voice, Trinko recently described life near a frac sand mine. She was participating in a Sept. 25 news conference call prompted by the release of a report on the proliferation of such operations in Wisconsin and Minnesota and the medical, environmental, economic consequences.

“The billowing of silica sand has not abated since the mine was constructed in 2011,” she said.

Trinko now suffers from asthma and lives with the daily use of an inhaler and nasal spray. People don’t like to visit the farmhouse, which her daughter said smells like someone “just swept the garage.” Trucks rumble past the farm every few minutes, five or six days a week.

Her home, Trinko said, “is not a healthy place to live.”

Her daughter “worries that my life expectancy is going to be shortened,” she added.

Communities at risk

A new report, Communities at Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest, warns that thousands face threats from the 164 frac sand mining facilities concentrated in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They operate with little or no government oversight for the impacts on air and water.

Researchers examined permitting and monitoring, water and air quality, impacts of silica dust on human health, projected declines in property values and the expense of building and rebuilding infrastructure.

In fracking, the sand holds open the fractures created by the water, sand and chemicals pumped into the earth to allow for the extraction of natural gas and oil. The more frac sand used per well, the higher the yield. Frackers will use about 95 billion pounds of frac sand this year. 

Researchers have identified 164 active frac sand facilities and proposals for another 20 in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Their report said Wisconsin was “overrun by the industry prior to any understanding of the scale and impacts of the industry,” while Minnesota has been more cautious. The number of operations in Wisconsin increased from seven in 2010, the year Scott Walker was elected governor, to 145. 

Midwest mining

A frac sand operation involves:

• Removing the plants, soil or rock above a sand deposit.

• Excavating the sand, which includes blasting and crushing.

• Processing the sand, including rinsing it with water and chemicals.

• Piling and storing the sand.

• Transporting the sand.

Eventually the mined-out property is reclaimed, which may or may not include an effort to restore any vegetation. Opponents liken frac sand mining to mountaintop removal.

“Rural communities are becoming industrialized. … Eliminating the bluffs facilitates groundwater contamination. Runoff into streams, wetlands and lakes threatens habitats and fisheries,” the report stated.

Living downwind and on the route

The mining is concentrated in southwest Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota in what is known as the Driftless Area, 23,000 square miles famous for its sandstone bluffs. It’s an area with protected and unique species and scenery that draws many tourists.

Mapping by the Environmental Working Group found mining sites “in close proximity to schools, hospitals and clinics, where children and patients may be exposed to airborne silica,” said EWG executive director Heather White. Data indicated that in a 33-county area there are about 58,000 people living within a half mile of an existing or proposed frac sand mine or processing site. The number of people living within a mile is 162,000.

“None of the states at the center of the current frac sand mining boom have adopted air quality standards for silica that will adequately protect the tens of thousands of people living or working near the scores of recently opened or proposed mining sites,” said White.

“Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape,” said Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Elected officials and our states’ natural resources protection agency have largely dismissed local citizens’ concerns about their health, the health of their environment and their quality of life. Without a clearer view of the big picture of frac sand mining’s impact, laws that protect our communities’ air and water aren’t being developed or enforced.”

Less than 10 percent of Wisconsin’s frac sand facilities are required to monitor air emissions, prompting MEA to circulate a petition asking the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board to conduct a health and environmental study.

The report states that it was written “in an attempt to fill the vacuum of government leadership and regulatory authority” and the researchers are raising questions that “should have been posed long ago.”

Those involved in the report recommended “a step back” in the process and more review and regulation.

Report co-author Grant Smith said, “It is essential that local and state governments assess and take action based on the impacts of the full cycle of shale oil and gas drilling, including frac sand mining. Health, water and … economic concerns should be addressed comprehensively, rather than being ignored or dismissed. Protecting public health and safety is the first responsibility of government.”

White added, “We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development.”

The urgency is that frac sand mining grew 30 percent from 2013, 50 percent more than projected, and it could spread to other states with untapped or largely untapped frac sand deposits, including Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

Serious concerns

White and Trinko detailed the concerns for mining in the area, along with Wright; Dr. Peter W. Holm of Chippewa Falls; Civil Society Institute energy policy adviser Smith; and Crispin Pierce, of the Environmental Public Health Program at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

The issues:

• A mining operation daily withdraws up to 2 million gallons of water that is mixed with a compound called polyacrylamide flocculent to treat the sand. That compound itself is non-toxic. But its production method may leave minute traces of a neurotoxin. As piled sand dries, acrylamide-laden water can seep into groundwater. Also, there can be acid runoff from mines.

• The primary air pollutant is silica dust. The most dangerous type of  particle mentioned in the report is fine particulate matter, dust smaller than 2.5 micrometers, less than one-seventh the width of a human hair. These particles are associated with asthma, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, birth defects and premature death. Silica particles — they aren’t weatherworn like beach sand but instead have sharp, jagged edges — are produced in mining and dispersed in the processing and hauling of the sand.

• Crystalline silica, created when silica is crushed or exploded, occurs in the operations. The tiny particles can be ingested and become lodged in the lungs. Intense exposure can cause disease in a year, but it can take 10-15 years for symptoms to appear. Exposure has been linked to tuberculosis, emphysema, bronchitis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, chronic thyroiditis and kidney-related diseases.

• Before-and-after satellite images at mining sites show devastating impacts on the landscape.

• Frac sand mining can result in substantial declines in property value, local tax revenues, business revenue, decreased life span of roads, increased health care costs and negative impacts on school funding.