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Indigenous Communities Face ‘International Human Crime’ as Ottawa Considers Tailings Pond Releases

Some Indigenous communities in northern Alberta say they’re being handed a choice between terrible options as the federal government develops regulations to allow treated tailings from tar sands/oil sands operations to be released into the environment. One advocate is calling the prospect of tailings releases into the Athabasca River an “international human crime”.

It takes three to four barrels of water to produce one barrel of bitumen, CBC News reports. And under current rules, “companies must store any water used to extract oil during the mining process because it becomes toxic. The massive above-ground lakes are known as tailings ponds, which are harmful to wildlife and have resulted in the death of birds that land on the water, on multiple occasions.”

Indigenous groups in the northern part of the province have been concerned for years that tailings ponds could further pollute their land and drinking water, the news report adds. But with tar sands/oil sands production continuing, fossils intent on increasing their output, and the volume of toxic tailings now standing at about 1.4 trillion litres—the equivalent of 560,000 Olympic swimming pools stretching from Edmonton to Melbourne, Australia—the fossil industry and some scientists say the water “can be treated enough so it can be safely discharged”.

A Crown-Indigenous working group began discussing the new standard at the beginning of this year. Ottawa hopes to release draft regulations under the Fisheries Act in 2024 and finalize them in 2025. But some Indigenous and environmental groups are concerned the releases will cause “even more harm” to the Athabasca River, a lifeline for many of the communities, CBC says.

“First Nations and Métis Nations have complained for years how the oilsands, as well as other industries, have caused water volumes and quality to drop, which they say has caused fish populations to decrease sharply over the years and some species to disappear,” the national broadcaster writes. “Research has found elevated cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a community located north of Fort McMurray on the western tip of Lake Athabasca, and high levels of heavy metals, such as mercury, and arsenic in animals that are hunted and consumed in the region.”

Jesse Cardinal, executive director of Keepers of the Water, said neither of the options on offer should be acceptable to Indigenous communities—especially when the only barrier to a full clean-up is cost.

“I’m angry that we have to be having this discussion of what do we want to happen,” she told CBC. “The fact that they’re even entertaining releasing the tailings ponds into the Athabasca River—this is an international human crime.”

Cardinal said she “doesn’t understand why the oilsands sector is allowed to expand operations and cause more tailings while this issue remains unresolved,” CBC adds.

“We know that the industry has other options to treat the tailings ponds, but they cost a lot more money,” she said. “We’re saying do what’s right, not what’s fast and easy.”

University of Alberta tailings treatment specialist Mohamed Gamal El-Din told CBC it’s “not economically feasible” to use technologies that would make the water safe to drink, but available treatments can leave it clean enough for release, similar to sewage treatment systems in cities and towns across the country. “The biggest challenge is that we have a massive amount of water that needs to be treated,” he said.

That reality has fossils, regulators, and researchers worried about the risk of accidental release, with a dam failure or natural disaster triggering a torrent of toxic water. One such dam disaster in Brazil killed 270 people, CBC says. As they continue extracting bitumen, Alberta fossils are required to keep building tailings dams to hold the waste water in perpetuity, and “this scenario is not tolerable,” said Calgary-based water resources engineer Les Sawatzky.

“If the oilsands release is controlled and satisfies the appropriate criteria, then I would have more comfort than something that’s a huge phenomenon and uncontrolled at the moment,” agreed University of British Columbia engineering professor Greg Lawrence. “There’s been flooding in the Fraser Valley and that is of far greater concern, I would say, than any regulated and controlled release.”

Industry spokespeople add that the requirement to retain treated tailings water can prolong the process of reclaiming old extraction sites by decades. “The more water that’s stored onsite, the less of the site itself is able to be reclaimed until there’s an opportunity to release water and free up that space,” said Mining Association of Canada Vice President Brendan Marshall. He added that the regulatory process should change the channel to addressing water quality issues, rather than fretting about the large volume of tailings water in storage.

“If you have a lot of water that can be safely treated to an acceptable threshold, then gradually releasing that water over time will do that river no harm,” he told CBC.

Coastal Gaslink Failed to Fix Multiple Environmental Violations, B.C. Officials Say

One year after ordering the owners of the Coastal GasLink pipeline to fix multiple environmental violations identified along its 670-kilometre construction route, and being more or less ignored, the British Columbia government of Premier John Horgan is trying again. 

Running from just west of Dawson Creek in northeastern B.C. to Kitimat on the northern coast—and crossing 625 ecologically sensitive waterways, some of which are prime fish habitat—the C$6.6-billion project remains rife with sediment and erosion problems, reports the CBC News.

Responding to the discovery of more than two dozen such problems, many of them long-standing, B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) has issued two enforcement orders against the pipeline project, demanding that measures be taken to finally control erosion and stop the sediment flows that suffocate fish eggs and deplete the viability of aquatic systems.

The new provincial orders come almost a year to the day after the EAO issued its first report outlining Coastal GasLink’s egregious failure to protect prime fish habitats and wetlands from sediment flows, despite laying out clear plans to do so in its own Environmental Management Plan. As reported by The Tyee this past January, the EAO report also demanded that the company take immediate remedial action to prevent sediment from “flowing from its construction sites into environmentally sensitive areas, like watercourses and wetlands, by stabilizing banks, creating working erosion control measures, and maintaining them after construction is completed.”

Responding to the new enforcement orders, Coastal GasLink told CBC News it has taken “immediate action to remedy the EAO reports’ findings of non-compliance.”

The company also tried to defend its environmental record, saying that while it respected the EAO findings, they were merely “a snapshot at the time of the inspection.”

Erosion and sediment control “is dynamic and changes constantly,” added Coastal GasLink spokesperson Natasha Westover. “We adapt along the way and are constantly evaluating.”

But Mike Ridsdale, environmental assessment coordinator with the Office of the Wet’suwet’en, whose traditional territory is being bisected by the pipeline route, observed that “CGL is getting a lot of non-compliance reports written up. When is enough?”

While “these violations are amended by writing a simple report stating that the error has been rectified,” Ridsdale added, no amount of error correction can remedy damage already done.

New Study Shows Siberian Permafrost Releasing Climate Super-Pollutant Nitrous Oxide

A permafrost region in East Siberia has emerged as a previously unknown source of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that carries nearly 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year span, a team of researchers from the University of Eastern Finland reported yesterday in the journal Nature Communications.

While annual nitrous oxides releases due to human activity have increased 30% by 1980, and alarmed scientists have been paying attention, nitrous emissions from permafrost would be a largely new twist in the effort to get greenhouse gases and the resulting climate emergency under control.

“The nitrous oxide emissions from thawing permafrost represent a poorly known, but potentially globally significant positive feedback to climate change,” the university writes in a release. “Overall, the consequences of nitrogen release from permafrost for Arctic ecosystems have been insufficiently studied and remain poorly understood.”

What’s known is that “rapid Arctic warming and associated permafrost thaw are threatening the large carbon and nitrogen reservoirs of northern permafrost soils, accumulated under cold conditions where the decomposition rate of soil organic matter (SOM) is low,” concludes the science team led by post-doctoral researcher Maija Marushchak. As the permafrost thaws, those pools are decomposing.

While “the fate of soil nitrogen liberated upon permafrost thaw is poorly studied and more complex” than carbon release, the scientists add, “there is evidence that part of liberated nitrogen may be emitted to the atmosphere as nitrogenous gases.”

Temperatures in Arctic Siberia were more than 6°C above average last year, states the Copernicus Climate Change Service, representing “the largest anomalies worldwide in 2020”. That heat wave was made 600 times more likely by climate change, Carbon Brief reported at the time, citing analysis by the World Weather Attribution network.

The researchers looked at the Yedoma permafrost, a large, until now frozen expanse that dates back to the Late Pleistocene age. They focused on the riverbanks of the East Siberian rivers Lena and Kolyma, where rapid permafrost thaw has exposed Yedoma permafrost to the surface and triggered large carbon and nitrogen releases due to microbial activity.

“The researchers found that nitrous oxide emissions from recently thawed Yedoma were initially very low but increased within less than a decade to high rates, exceeding typical emissions from permafrost-affected soils by one to two orders of magnitude (10-100 times),” the release states. The increase occurred when the Yedoma sediments dried out after they thawed, and also had to do with a shifting balance between microbes that consume nitrous oxide precursors like nitrate and nitric oxide, and those that produce it.

Marushchak told The Energy Mix there are too many unknowns to estimate the total nitrous oxide released from Yedoma permafrost in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada’s Yukon Territory at today’s level of global warming. But with the climate community aiming for future climate stabilization at 1.5 to 2.0°C, and most projections pointing to still larger increases in global heating, “we can expect higher nitrous oxide emissions with warmer temperatures, because warming will accelerate the rate of permafrost thaw and thus mobilization of nitrogen from permafrost,” she wrote in an email.

She added that factors like soil moisture are even more important than temperature, with the highest risk coming from soils that are neither too wet nor too dry.

In the university news release, Marushchak said nitrogen released by thawing permafrost “can substantially improve the availability of nitrogen in Arctic ecosystems, which, in addition to the direct climatic feedback in the form of nitrous oxide, may have important consequences on carbon fixation by plants and eutrophication of water systems.” In her email, she said there isn’t enough information on Arctic biogeochemistry to weigh the cooling effect of increased plant growth and carbon fixation against the increased nitrous oxide emissions that might come from northern rivers and lakes.

Whichever way that balance goes, there will be only one path for humanity to try to shift the outcome.

“Unfortunately, there is no way to directly control or reduce permafrost thaw-related N2O emissions over vast, remote Arctic areas,” Marushchak wrote. “The best possibility to protect permafrost worldwide and to prevent mobilization of its carbon and nitrogen stocks is to reduce anthropogenic emissions related to fossil fuel combustion and land use,” including nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture.

University of Ottawa permafrost specialist Antoni Lewkowicz said the same processes could unfold in Canada, but the emission rates may differ and the country doesn’t have very many deposits of Yedoma permafrost.

But “we have had many surprises regarding emissions of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost over the past decade,” he told The Mix. “This study falls into that category. Permafrost areas are vast and heterogeneous and we still have a great deal to learn about biogeochemical cycling as the climate warms.”

ALEC Develops Model Legislation To Foil Fossil Divestment Decisions

The right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is developing model legislation for U.S. state governments aimed at preventing business divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Private sector representatives and mostly Republican state lawmakers who make up ALEC’s membership unanimously approved the two drafts at their annual summit on Friday.

Presenting the model legislation vote as an “opportunity to push back against woke financial institutions that are colluding against American energy producers,” Jason Isaac, director of the Koch-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation, emailed his ALEC allies the morning of the vote, urging them to pass the measures. The email was obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and was first reported on by CMD investigative journalist Alex Kotch.

Isaac wrote that “major banks and investment firms are colluding to deny lending and investment in fossil fuel companies, using their market power to force companies to make ‘green’ investments,” reports The New Republic.

The model legislation responds to those strategies, Isaac said in the email, by setting forth “a strategy in which states use their collective economic purchasing power to counter the rise of politically motivated and discriminatory investing practices.’” 

One piece of legislation, “Resolution Opposing Securities and Exchange Commission and White House Mandates on Climate-Related Financial Matters,” encourages states to litigate against rules from federal financial regulators around climate risk and disclosure.

The other, the Energy Discrimination Elimination Act, directs state treasurers and comptrollers to maintain a list of firms boycotting fossil fuels, and requires all businesses with more than 10 employees that receive federal contracts to verify that they aren’t a part of any boycott campaigns.

“The bill and its backers claim that fossil fuel divestment will hurt workers and state pension funds, yet it ignores the growing U.S. renewable energy industry and its lucrative stocks,” reports CMD. With recent estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy that 80% of electricity will be produced from renewables by 2050, ALEC staff suggested that “lawmakers frame the bill as protecting the economic interests of their states.”

By September, measures similar to those laid out in the proposed Energy Discrimination Elimination Act had already been enacted as Texas law, following passage of Texas Senate Bill 13.

Isaac said the language in the model legislation was “carefully crafted to uphold First Amendment free speech principles and avoid restricting companies’ ability to adopt political stances on energy,” reports CMD. But some experts point out that the bill is modelled after anti-BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) legislation that ALEC has passed in 33 states in response to other policy issues, some of which has been struck down as unconstitutional.

“We have recently seen a concerted legislative attack on the right to boycott,” Nicholas Robinson, senior legal adviser at the International Center for Nonprofit Law, told CMD. “It should concern everyone who cares about free speech when a state government punishes those who engage in a boycott.”

Biden Approves More Oil and Gas Drilling on Public Lands Than Trump

United States President Joe Biden’s administration has approved more oil and gas permits per month on public lands than Donald Trump did during his first three years in office, according to an analysis released yesterday by Washington, DC-based Public Citizen.

During Biden’s first year in office to date, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management “has approved an average of 333 drilling permits per month,” the Washington Post reports, citing the Public Citizen release. “That figure is more than 35% higher than Trump’s first year in office, when BLM approved an average of 245 drilling permits per month.”

This year’s count “is also higher than the monthly average in 2018 (279 permits) and 2019 (284 permits), but lower than the monthly average in 2020 (452 permits), when oil companies stockpiled permits in the final months of the Trump administration,” the Post adds.

“From an environmentalist’s point of view, this doesn’t look great for Biden,” Public Citizen lead author Alan Zibel told the Post’s Climate 202 newsletter.

“The president has basically only tried to tackle one side of the climate problem,” added co-founder Jamie Henn, now an organizer with Build Back Fossil Free. “He’s talked a lot about building clean energy, but he hasn’t done anything to stop fossil fuels. And you need to tackle both sides if we’re going to address this crisis.”

Zibel said Team Biden’s performance to date is “understandable”, after U.S. courts blocked his campaign promise to ban oil and gas drilling on public lands. “Permit reviews on legally maintained leases are required by law,” Interior Department spokesperson Tyler Cherry told the Post. “At the same time, Interior is conducting a more comprehensive analysis of greenhouse gas impacts from potential oil and gas lease sales than ever before.”

A White House spokesperson added that “President Biden kept his campaign promise and ordered a pause on oil and gas leasing on public lands, which the courts have subsequently blocked, mandating that the program continue.” But Interior’s reporting “confirms what we have always known: that this program delivers a bad deal for American taxpayers and that it needs to be reformed.”

Inside Climate News says U.S. environmental groups were “deeply disappointed” late last month when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland published a leasing roadmap that raised the fees fossils must pay for extracting resources on public lands, but changed little else.

“Our biggest criticism is simply that it basically ignores the elephant in the room, which is climate change,” said Josh Axelrod, senior advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nature program.

“We’re at a critical juncture on climate,” he added. “At the very least, it would have been nice to see some recognition of that, even if they didn’t propose any definite policy changes. The lack of it is a major disappointment.”

However, “some observers argue that from a climate perspective, the administration had little to gain and a lot to lose politically by going forward with a ban on new federal leasing at this time,” Inside Climate adds. “Oil and gas from federal lands and offshore has become a smaller portion of U.S. production over the last 18 years, while drilling on private land has soared.”

With mid-term elections Congressional now less than a year away, “a ban on new leasing would not make a significant dent in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they say, but it would stir up a political firestorm that would hurt Biden and other Democrats,” especially in swing states New Mexico and Colorado.

“Oil and gas leasing has taken on a symbolic importance far beyond its actual climate value,” said Progressive Policy Institute strategic advisor Paul Bledsoe. Instead of triggering a showdown on leasing, he told Inside Climate the administration may have decided to spend its political capital on more approaches that would deliver more impact, like methane regulations and the transition to electric vehicles.

Even with very limited action on oil and gas leasing, Republicans in Congress are still trying to blame rising energy prices on Biden’s restrictions on fossil production. That claim is “disingenuous”, Public Citizen’s Zibel said.

“The idea that the Biden administration’s public lands policies are having a meaningful impact on oil and gasoline prices is just not a serious argument,” he told the Post.

Sustainable Land Use is ‘Biggest Landmark’ in B.C.’s 2030 Climate Roadmap

An emphasis on sustainable land use is the most important unheralded gain in British Columbia’s new Roadmap to 2030, the updated climate strategy the province released last month, urban climate and sustainability veteran Alex Boston writes in an opinion piece for the Vancouver Sun.

The update was badly needed in a province whose “climate action leadership has been 90% aspiration and 10% implementation,” Boston says. Against a 2030 target to cut emissions by 40%, B.C. has seen its carbon pollution increase 5% since 2007.

But while the Roadmap’s attention to zero-emission vehicles and failure to put a stop to fossil fuel development have received the most attention since the strategy was released, Boston calls sustainable land use the “biggest landmark” in the new plan.

“Due to auto-oriented urban land use fuelled by road and bridge expansion, B.C.’s vehicle stock is growing at twice the population growth rate,” he explains, from two to three million cars over a 14-year span when the population only grew 18%. “Under current trends, another 1.5 million cars will be added by 2030. Without better land use, there will be more fossil fuel cars and congestion on our roads in 2030 than today.”

While B.C. is by no means the only jurisdiction facing problems with traffic and sprawl, the Roadmap has a couple of roadmaps of its own to follow. “Only one country has cut transportation GHGs below 1990 levels: Sweden,” and “B.C. shares three of Sweden’s policy pillars: carbon pricing, renewable transportation fuels, and Zero Emission Vehicle sales requirements,” Boston explains. “B.C.’s new Roadmap has now sketched out Sweden’s fourth pillar: integrated land use and transportation infrastructure development.”

The other success story is California, where the four-pillar approach has brought a 7% reduction in transportation emissions since 2007. Over that same time span, British Columbia’s have grown 23%.

“The sustainable land use pillar has the potential to not only cut transportation carbon, but also to cut carbon in buildings and preserve terrestrial carbon,” Boston adds. “Urban growth patterns are the biggest and most consistent driver of permanent forest loss after energy development—oil, gas, and hydroelectricity.”

And the “immense” benefits of sustainable land use go beyond carbon reductions.

“Weak urban forest canopy was a key indicator of neighbourhoods with high heat-related deaths during the heat dome,” he writes. “Natural areas permit deep penetration of intense rain and large wave events, mitigating flood risk. Focusing growth in low-risk areas will cost-effectively provide infrastructure needed to meet water, sewage, transportation, and flood defence needs.”

Quebec Liberals Plans $100B Green Platform as Québec Solidaire Pledges to Nationalize Renewables

As the Quebec Liberal Party seeks to redefine itself less than a year before a provincial election, Leader Dominique Anglade wants the environment to be its main focus.

The leader of the province’s Opposition told Liberals at a policy convention in Quebec City late last month that environmental issues must be the ballot question when Quebecers go to the polls in October 2022, The Canadian Press reports.

Anglade wants Quebec to fight climate change by creating government-owned green hydrogen production capacity, something she said should not only be a central plank of the Liberal platform but a key element of the next election campaign.

“I hope it will be the issue of the next election,” she told reporters.

Anglade said she thinks the Coalition Avenir Québec government of François Legault isn’t credible when it comes to fighting climate change. “It’s quite clear that the CAQ has decided that this won’t be a key issue for them,” she said.

Nationalizing the production of green hydrogen, which uses renewable energy to extract hydrogen from water through electrolysis, would be one of the pillars of a larger C$100-billion environmental plan that Anglade said she’d put in place if the Liberals win Quebec’s next election.

Anglade said green hydrogen could replace fossil fuels used in trains, planes, and boats and help reduce Quebec’s use of hydrocarbon fuels.

The provincial Liberals aren’t the only ones talking nationalization. Earlier in November, a Québec Solidaire convention called for the “greenest electoral platform in history,” CBC reports. Key planks would include a 55% emission reduction target for 2030, a ban on fossil fuel development, a new electrified rail network to carry passengers and freight, an end to planned obsolescence in consumer products, and a plan to nationalize wind and solar companies.

Anglade, who has led the Liberals for 18 months, said the party is in a process of redefining itself under her leadership. Recent polls have shown the Liberals in a distant second place behind the governing Coalition Avenir Québec. The province’s next provincial election is set for October 3, 2022.

The main body of this report was first published by The Canadian Press on November 27, 2021.

Manatees, Facing a Crisis, Will Get a Bit of Help: Extra Feeding

In a first, wildlife officials have decided to provide food for the mammals, which have suffered catastrophic losses in Florida waters over the last year.
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