1. New York Times, “Nuclear Waste is Allowed Above Ground Indefinitely”
August 29, 2014
By Matthew L. Wald
As the country struggles to find a place to bury spent nuclear fuel, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided that nuclear waste from power plants can be stored above ground in containers that can be maintained and guarded indefinitely.
The decision, in a unanimous vote of the commission on Tuesday, means that new nuclear plants can be built and old ones can expand their operations despite the lack of a long-term plan for disposing of the waste.
The chairwoman of the commission, who voted with the majority but dissented on certain aspects, said Friday that the vote risked allowing Congress to ignore the long-term problem.
“If you make the assumption that there will be some kind of institution that will exist, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that will assure material stays safe for hundreds or thousands of years, there’s not much impetus for Congress to want to deal with this issue,” the chairwoman, Allison M. Macfarlane, said Friday. “Personally, I think that we can’t say with any certainty what the future will look like. We’re pretty damned poor at predicting the future.”
In the 1980s, Congress picked Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, as the prime location for a burial site, but that consensus fell apart in the face of sharp opposition from Nevada and a changing political balance. The Energy Department is now saying that a burial site will be established by 2048, but the agency has no method for finding one.
The commission approved a generic environmental impact statement, under which nuclear activities can continue, but did not address the impact to the environment if the stored nuclear waste were abandoned, which would leave it vulnerable to attack or allow the containers to break down.
Ms. Macfarlane said it was wrong to predict institutional control indefinitely. “Best not to say anything about something so uncertain,” she said, “and just to work with what we can know for sure.”
For decades the commission has allowed nuclear plants to operate under what it called its waste confidence rule, which said that although there was no repository, there would most likely be one by the time it was needed, and in the interim, the storage of the highly radioactive waste in spent fuel pools or in dry casks would suffice. But in June 2012, a court ruled that the commission had not done its homework in studying whether the waste could be stored on an interim basis. As a result, the commission froze much of its licensing activity two years ago.
On Tuesday, however, the commission approved a finding by its staff that waste could be stored — as opposed to disposed of — indefinitely. The vote was 4-0.
Some nuclear opponents say the issue is certain to wind up back in court. As the Natural Resources Defense Council, Geoffrey H. Fettus, the lead lawyer in the original case, said in a statement: “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to analyze the long-term environmental consequences of indefinite storage of highly toxic and radioactive nuclear waste; the risks of which are apparent to any observer of history over the past 50 years. The commission failed to follow the express directions of the court.”
The action, though, allows the commission to extend the licenses of two reactors in Pennsylvania, Limerick 1 and 2, and to extend the license for storage casks holding spent fuel at another two-unit plant, Calvert Cliffs, in Maryland.
Several other license renewals would have had to have been denied had the new policy not been put in place, including Indian Point 2 and 3, in Buchanan, N.Y., but those license applications still have other unresolved issues. Likewise, several applications to build reactors would eventually have been blocked, except that those plants were not very likely to be built in the near future.
In coming years the agency will need to reconfigure its staff to handle a different problem: an increased number of plants shutting down and entering the decommissioning process, Ms. MacFarlane said. And, she said, the commission needs to rewrite its rules for decommissioning plants. For example, she said, once the nuclear fuel has been removed from a reactor core, the security requirements at the plants should probably be relaxed because the risk is reduced.
2. Associated Press, “Illinois Issues Long-Awaited Fracking Rules For Oil and Gas Companies”
August 29, 2014
By Kerry Lester
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Stricter requirements for disclosing the use of chemicals are part of new proposed rules issued by the state Friday as part of the process of regulating fracking, the high-volume oil and gas drilling method that proponents hope will bring a surge of jobs to Illinois.
The highly anticipated rules, released by the state Department of Natural Resources, come after months of complaints about delays from industry officials anxious to begin hydraulic fracturing in what they say are southern Illinois’ rich deposits of natural gas. The state was hailed last year for legislation seen as a model of compromise on how to regulate the drilling practice, but that cooperation broke down when draft rules were criticized by both industry and environmental activists.
State officials expressed confidence that the new rules would address all the concerns raised in 30,000 comments they received in response to those initial rules. DNR director Marc Miller said his staff had done “a thorough and thoughtful job” in crafting a balanced, 150-page report delivered to an administrative oversight committee tasked with reviewing them over the next 45 days before they can take effect.
But both environmentalists and industry officials also were poring over the report Friday, and some indicated that the battle over the regulations may not be over. Mark Denzler, chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, said hopeful drillers were not happy with the requirement for more detailed disclosure of specific chemicals, which he said could threaten “trade secret protections.”
“From a cursory review, there are concerns that the new rules exceed the scope of the legislation,” Denzler said.
The department also clarified rules to ensure that wastewater would not be stored in open pits for more than a week at a time, which environmentalists had said would lead to contamination. And it stipulated that public hearings for fracking permits should not be held further than 30 miles from where a well site would be located.
Some environmentalists offered tepid praise for the department’s attention to their concerns, while saying they would be pouring over the new rules over the next few days.
“The agency clearly paid attention to some of the public comments that were out there, but given the technical nature of things it remains to be seen if those issues are fixed,” said Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of water, chemicals and sand to crack open rock formations thousands of feet underground to release trapped oil and gas. Opponents fear it will pollute and deplete groundwater or cause health problems, while the industry insists the method is safe and will cause the same economic boom seen in other states such as North Dakota. They warned that Illinois risked losing out on a bonanza as the months went by while the DNR crafted the rules.
Miller, the DNR director, said he was “optimistic” the state could now meet a Nov. 15 deadline for the rules to be in place. He noted that the agency has hired 24 of 53 employees it needs to issue permits, inspect wells and perform other tasks associated with the anticipated influx of drilling activity. The Associated Press reported last month the agency had hired only four workers at that time.
The bipartisan panel reviewing the rules has 45 days to sign off on the suggested rules, change them or block them. It also can ask for a 45-day extension in making recommendations.
If the committee signs off on the plan, Miller said drillers could begin applying for permits later this fall. Permits, according to the rules, must be approved within 60 days.
If the panel rejects the rules, Miller said, the department would begin another lengthy hearing process.
3. NBC Los Angeles, “California Drought Threatens Nation’s Most Productive Farming Valley”
September 1, 2014
By Patrick Healy
[Watch Monty Schmitt and Kate Poole’s video appearances here]
In the rich farmland of the San Joaquin Valley it’s summertime — peak growing season for many crops. But every sunbaked, scorching day brings another test of water reserves in a region running on empty.
The dearth of irrigation water from rivers or reservoirs has forced growers in the valley 80 miles north of Los Angeles to rely almost entirely on water pumped from wells.
“I’m worried from a couple of standpoints,” said grower Stuart Woolf, as he stood in a field of tomatoes at harvest time. “One, I’m worried that we just flat run out of groundwater.”
Some growers have already taken draconian steps to deal with the reality that they don’t have enough water for all their crops. Near Fresno, Shawn Stevenson bulldozed a third of his orange grove.
“When these trees are gone they’re not going to use any more water so I can put that water on another crop,” Stevenson said.
In this third year of record drought, other growers have idled acreage for annual row crops.
“If this was a regular year, this would have been re-planted either to corn or to sorghum,” said Tipton farmer Tom Barcellos, as he showed a reporter a field he’s fallowed “either one of them would have been about 10 feet tall right at this point so we’d been walking here and you’d never see us.”
Not far away, Vince and Pam Sola watched their almonds being harvested next door to a field they’ve left unplanted. Permanent tree crops are different. If you can’t water them, you not only lose that year’s income; you lose your investment.
“It’s sad to see this land just lay there vacant,” said Pam Sola, shrugging her shoulders as her husband finished her thought.
“Without surface water, we decided we had to leave some land idle and divert the water to less acres,” said Vince Sola.
It is a summer of crisis for the Solas, Barcellos, and Woolf, but the crisis is hardly unique to them, with the drought stressing agriculture in virtually the entire San Joaquin Valley.
Its farming region stretches from the Tehachapi Mountains to Stockton, bounded by the Coast Range to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east. Blessed with rich soil, an abundance of sun, but minimal rainfall even apart from drought years, the valley has relied for half a century on water imported from Northern California to become the nation’s most productive growing region, known for its citrus and grapes and increasingly for specialty tree crops such as almonds and pistachios, walnuts and cherries.
“This is an impact across the country,” warned Barcellos. “You look at the number of nuts and grapes — everything that’s on somebody’s table sometime of the day comes from this valley.”
Barcellos is primarily a dairyman in a corner of Tulare County that produces 12 percent of the nation’s milk. He worries about cows that need water every three hours, and rely on misters to avoid overheating in triple-digit temperatures.
“There is no surface water to buy here for this district,” Barcellos laments, as he shows a reporter a bone-dry and dusty irrigation ditch that had been serving his farm for decades. He wistfully recalls playing in the ditch water as a teenager, even water skiing as a buddy pulled him along with a tractor. No more.
Since shortly after World War II, and with rare exceptions, the region farmed by Barcellos and the Solas has been able to rely on irrigation water from the federal Central Valley Project. The Bureau of Reclamation dammed the San Joaquin River, and diverted almost its entire flow into two irrigation canals for the eastside growers. A third canal, from the San Francisco Bay Delta to Mendota, was built for growers with rights to the San Joaquin River to replace the water no longer flowing downstream. Surplus water from the Delta Mendota Canal became available for growers including the Woolf Farm on the west side of the valley, and the region flourished, despite nagging concerns that in dry years, relying on junior rights, it would be the first to be cut off.
Statewide, agriculture takes an estimated three-quarters of the water California consumes. Farming is by far the state’s largest single water user, dwarfing the amount city-dwellers use to boil their potatoes, brush their teeth, wash their clothes and water their yards.
Over the decades, periodic droughts have reduced or even interrupted deliveries, but nothing like this past year of drought, when only the holders of original, so-called “riparian” rights to the San Joaquin River received surface water; for other growers, the federal allocation was reduced to zero, leaving them almost entirely dependent on groundwater.
Not every farm has sufficient well capacity to serve all of its needs. In some cases, wells have gone dry as the water table is drawn down. Even farms with adequate well water see profits decimated by the cost of purchasing the electrical power needed to pump deep-lying groundwater hundreds of feet to the surface.
This past week, the California state legislature took initial steps toward tracking and eventually regulating groundwater withdrawals, a level of regulation to which some farmers are resistant, but others are resigned.
“We have to be saved from ourselves,” said Vince Sola. “Otherwise we’re just going to pump, pump, pump, and it will be all gone.”
Using satellite technology, a new study by UC San Diego found 63 trillion gallons have been lost from the groundwater reserves of the western U.S. That’s enough to cover all the land west of the Rockies in four inches of water, the authors noted. As reserves drop, wells go dry, and drillers cannot keep up with the demand for drilling deeper.
“We’re 12-13 months behind,” said Steve Arthur of Arthur & Orum Well Drilling, as he watched his crew go down 600 feet for a new well to supply an almond grove outside Caruthers. In another area to the north of Fresno, another grower had Arthur dig down 2,000 feet. The water table is not yet that low, Arthur explained, but the grower wants reserve room as the groundwater is drawn down further.
Wells that deep cost as much as $750,000, Arthur said, not including the pump and other expenses before the well becomes operational.
It’s deja vu.
Before the Central Valley Project and California’s State Water Project, San Joaquin Valley growers relied almost exclusively on groundwater. So much was pumped out, that the floor of the valley began dropping, or “subsiding,” as the weight of the ground above crushed the waterless Earth below. By 1977, the ground near Mendota had subsided some 30 feet, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey.
That subsidence has again reared its head is not disputed by growers.
“In some regions you can actually see the ground around the well site — it looks like the well is growing — it’s coming out of the ground,” said Woolf, explaining that in reality, the ground is dropping around the wellhead, exposing more of it.
To stetch their water, growers have been switching to more efficient irrigation techniques, including expensive drip systems.
It has also lead to unintended consequences. Drip means that the mineral contaminants in groundwater are concentrated at the seed row. Avoiding overwater also limits the water that in the past would have percolated through the soil to replenish the underground water table.
Drought Threatens California Farming Valley
Where the drought is reducing crop yields may lead to higher prices — but not necessarily for crops in competition with other regions, and the California drought impact at the grocery checkout stand so far has been minimal.
“If all you know is you go to the store and the food is there and it doesn’t cost any more, then you don’t seen the impact,” Pam Sola said.
Growers hope it does not get to that point before they get assistance. They are calling for the government water projects to build additional storage, so that more of the snowmelt and river runoff during wet years can be saved for drought years.
Some $2.7 billion would be dedicated to new storage if California voters approve the water bond that the legislature has placed on the November ballot. Many growers think it should be more.
In addition, growers bristle at environmental conservation rulings and decisions that have placed limits on the amount of river water that can be withdrawn and delivered by the water projects for irrigation.
Some characterize the dispute as Farmer vs. Fish.
Of particular concern are the salmon that swim through the vast Delta where the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers reach the San Francisco Bay. Salmon still spawn upstream in the Sacramento Rivers. Federal rulings have effectively placed limits on water releases from upstream dams in order to insure that river temperatures remain cool enough for salmon to spawn.
Under a separate agreement to restore the salmon runs in the San Joaquin River, 17 percent of the average flow long diverted to irrigation canals will be again sent downstream for the fish.
The agreement does recognize the impact of periodic droughts. This year, no water is being released into the San Joaquin River for restoration, according to Monty Schmitt of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
That is not the only impact of the drought on environmental restoration. It has also limited the amount of water for the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in an area that once was periodically flooded by the San Joaquin River and was a natural wetland. That ended when 19th century ranchers established grazing fields and built levees to protect them.
The value of maintaining wetlands and native grasslands became a goal of the US Dept. of the Interior after it became apparent that one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century, the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, was enabled by the removal of native grasslands for farm crops that could not be sustained during a drought.
Since the 1960’s, some of the water delivered by the Delta Mendota Canal has gone to flooding the Refuge every September. This drought year, the allocation has been reduced to 65 percent of normal, according to Karl Stromayer, Refuge Asst. Manager, and that will affect the habitat in this portion of what is known as the Pacific Flyway.
“When migratory birds get here, we have less food for them,” Stromayer said.
Ironically, during this drought summer there is now more water in the San Joaquin than there has been for decades, because it is being released to satisfy the riparian rights of downstream properties that for decades until this year had been served by the Delta Mendota Canal.
That water is being released from Friant Dam, rather than being diverted into the Friant-Kern canal, is the reason Barcellos and his fellow Tulare County growers are not receiving any Central Valley project water this year.
Growers acknowledge the need to protect habitat, but challenged the benefits of how it has played out. A longtime sore point for growers is a ruling that effectively limits how much freshwater can be withdrawn from the Delta in order to protect a finger-size fish known as the Delta Smelt, an endangered, and therefore protected, species.
Woolf observed the hand-wringing in Los Angeles in July when a water main failure sent 20 million gallons of water through the UCLA campus en route to storm sewers.
“Here this season over one 60 day period we sent 260 million gallons under the Golden Gate Bridge for a benefit nobody knows what it was,” complained Woolf.
Environmental activists contend there are tangible benefits.
“It’s very shortsighted to wipe out fisheries to get a little water now that does not benefit us in the longrun,” said Kate Poole, senior attorney with the NRDC.
Regardless, the battle will continue to be fought in court.
The environmental issues have had less impact on farming regions in the Delta, and to the north in the Sacramento Valley, where growers rely on water districts with riparian rights to the Sacramento River, which delivers are more than the San Joaquin. Growers in California’s next largest agricultural region, the Imperial Valley near the Mexican border, import their water from the Colorado River, which has been less affected by the California drought.
All with stakes in California’s water supply worry about the effect of climate change adding to unpredictability. But as it is, California’s surface water resource has been frustratingly unpredictable since epic flooding overwhelmed the San Joaquin Valley’s first generation of farmers back in the 19th Century after the Gold Rush.
It’s been four decades since a drought as severe as the current one, but since 1977, not a decade has passed without a drought, and the one just 5 years ago triggered conservation responses still in place in many areas, including Los Angeles.
By the same token, every 4 years on average there is a rainy season wet enough to produce flooding. The last one occurred in the winter of 2011, when reservoirs ran out of capacity and instead of banking water for summer during winter and spring, had to release it.
“We never get an average amount of water,” Schmitt said. “It’s always too much or too little. The key is: how do we manage it so we will have vibrant agriculture industry, while also having a healthy river and community resource.”
4. Sacramento Bee, “Conservation Conundrum: Water Use Varies Greatly Across California”
August 31, 2014
By Matt Weiser
Drive across city limits in virtually any part of California, and you will also cross another kind of frontier, one gaining more attention during the worst drought in a generation: The borders between cities also define different ideas about water. One city may have gutters coursing with wasted water, while its neighbor lives by the highest conservation standards.
The differences can be glaring, according to a Bee review of data submitted by water agencies, and they highlight some of the challenges in achieving broad conservation goals during the ongoing drought. In a hypothetical tour of the state, according to the data, the well-informed traveler would encounter the following disparities:
• In the tony hillside mansions of Los Altos, residents in 2012 consumed an average of 197 gallons of water per person each day. Step across the city limits into Mountain View, and consumption drops to 139 gallons per day.
• In Anaheim, the home of Disneyland, per capita consumption is 163 gallons per day. Next door in Garden Grove, the average is only 128 gallons each per day.
• In the state capital’s metro region, Folsom residents consume 329 gallons each per day. Their neighbors in adjacent Orangevale consume significantly less, 225 gallons per day.
Water consumption varies enormously across California, and the reasons are not easy to pin down. But it is an issue of growing importance as the state struggles to contain water demand.
In the most recent report to the State Water Resources Control Board, a survey of water agencies showed that Californians in May failed to achieve the 20 percent conservation goal sought by Gov. Jerry Brown in his emergency drought proclamation. They failed to get even close: Consumption actually increased by 1 percent compared with the prior year.
“Most people haven’t been cutting back,” said Dale Creasey, 81, a resident of Orangevale. He reduced his most recent water bill by 43 percent, despite growing more than 1,300 pounds of zucchini that he donated to charity. His personal goal is 50 percent. “I believe in God, I attend church, and I feel that you’re supposed to help take care of your fellow man. When there’s a water shortage, you cut back so everybody can have some.”
Tracy Quinn, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in California water issues, said residents can save more. “We live in a state that’s susceptible to epic drought,” Quinn said. “It’s up to all of us to do our part to save in good times and in bad.”
Where water runs high
Expecting every resident of the state to use the same amount of water, or even adopt the same conservation measures, seems like a reasonable expectation on the surface. But California’s geographic and socio-economic diversity make this difficult, if not unreasonable, said Gregory Weber, executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council. The council collects consumption data from many water agencies as part of an agreement with the state.
“It’s hard to tell a single story about why people across the state have such differences,” said Weber. “Every water agency out there is going to claim they have unique circumstances, and to a large extent it’s true.”
Weber and other water experts say California’s many unique microclimates are one explanation for the wide differences in water consumption. For example, residential properties in Sacramento and Berkeley, all else being equal, will consume very different amounts of water simply because the former experiences hotter temperatures much of the year.
“Everything we do in Sacramento to try and survive the hot summers uses more water than some parts of the state,” said John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority.
But beyond climate, other factors come into play, especially when comparing neighboring communities that experience similar weather. Household size, property size and income level also have a role.
For example, Los Altos consists of 84 percent owner-occupied homes, vs. 64 percent in neighboring Mountain View, according to U.S. census data. Also, median household income in Los Altos, at $140,000 per year, is 53 percent greater than in Mountain View.
“If you don’t mind paying a large water bill – if that’s a small proportion of your income – there really is less of an incentive to save,” said Quinn.
That would seem to be the case in places like Rancho Santa Fe. The community near San Diego is considered one of the wealthiest in America, with a median household income of $173,000 annually. It also has one of the highest rates of water consumption in the state: Within the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which serves Rancho Santa Fe and several nearby communities, per capita water consumption in 2012 was 485 gallons per day.
In comparison, consumption in neighboring San Diego was just 128 gallons per person per day.
Rancho Santa Fe was also one of the communities that caused California as a whole to miss the 20 percent water conservation target in May: Water use in Rancho Santa Fe actually increased 23 percent in May compared with the prior three years. The area gets about 65 percent of its water from imported supplies, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Jessica Parks, a spokeswoman for the district, said most residential properties in the area are large – 1 to 3 acres in size – and have small orchards of lemon, orange or avocado trees that demand water.
“We are an irrigation district,” Parks said. “However, it’s pretty much transformed over time to being an urban water provider now. We have large lots that need irrigation. So when one person is living on a 3-acre lot, it does look like they’re using a lot of water.”
The district has had conservation programs in place for many years, including rebates on some water-saving technologies that are not offered in the Sacramento area, such as weather-sensitive irrigation timers, soil-moisture sensors and rain-collection barrels.
But until recently, it had only voluntary watering restrictions in place, despite the governor’s emergency drought proclamation in January. On Aug. 21, the district’s board of directors adopted mandatory watering restrictions that limit outdoor irrigation to certain days of the week based on address, and only in the morning and evening hours.
Unlike many other areas of the state, there will be no “water cops” roaming the avenues of Rancho Santa Fe to look for violations.
“We don’t have the staff resources for that,” said Parks. “We can’t be everywhere, so we’re hoping our customers can also help us in finding that water waste.”
Where water runs low
Far to the north in Sonoma County, the culture of conservation is very different. In Santa Rosa, the region’s largest city and the county seat, residents consume an average of just 106 gallons per person each day, one of the lowest rates in the state.
Santa Rosa depends on the Russian River for more than 90 percent of its water supply. It’s a a tempestuous source: The river can cause floods in winter, then dry up the following year. It is also home to imperiled salmon and steelhead runs, a reality that many residents connect with their own water consumption.
“We have a lot of really concerned and active and engaged citizens in Santa Rosa,” said Kimberly Zunino, the city’s water resources sustainability manager. “We find, in Santa Rosa, it’s not always about money. They want to do their part.”
The city is rolling out a new program to replace older water-saving toilets with even more miserly ultra-high efficiency toilets that use only 0.8 gallons per flush. It is not a rebate program, but rather a package deal in which customers pay $375 for a toilet and the services of a contractor to install it. The package also includes a water-saving showerhead and faucet aerators for kitchen and bathroom.
Customers can pay for the toilet-replacement package with a $7 monthly charge on their water bills. In the long run, Zunino estimates, many customers will end up saving money on their water bills because the new toilets are so efficient.
The city has also hired consultants to find water savings in the commercial sector, a conservation opportunity that is largely untapped in many communities. For example, it paid a consultant $14,000 to help city staffers understand the food industry to work more effectively with Amy’s Kitchen. The organic food processor has a packaging plant in Santa Rosa and is one of the city’s largest water users.
The resulting water savings will save the company money, and Zunino said the city also expects to recover the consultant’s cost through savings in city operations.
She said other communities should make a similar effort.
“There are things, I think, that every agency and municipality can do,” Zunino said. “If we can teach all of our residents and customers to actually change their behavior, we can reduce water use everywhere. It’s getting out there and talking to those customers and trying to get people to realize that water is not an endless supply.”
5. Inside Climate News, “Keystone Ads Mislead on Canada’s Deep Cuts to Environmental Monitoring”
September 2, 2014
By Mike De Souza
The ads were hard to miss for anyone taking the subway in Washington, D.C.—particularly someone working at the White House, the State Department or Congress.
They included images of children waving the American and Canadian flags, a green mountain with a river running through it, and construction workers building a new pipeline in Texas.
The ads in some of the capital’s busiest Metro stations are but a small part of an aggressive, ongoing campaign that targets the most powerful people in Washington. The goal: President Obama’s approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, a major expansion project that could bring more of Canada’s carbon-intensive tar sands oil into the United States.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has set aside $22.7 million for an advertising blitz this year to promote oil and Canada’s other natural resources in the United States, Europe and Asia. But scientists and environmental groups say the advertising message is misleading its target audience about the Canadian government’s failure to clean up the oil sands, Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.
“Those [advertising] messages aren’t accompanied by any changes in policy—they’re basically defending Canada’s current record, which we know to be quite poor when it comes to climate,” said Danielle Droitsch, the Canada project director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental group that has criticized the Keystone pipeline project and the expansion of Canada’s oil sands industry.
Environment Canada, the Canadian counterpart to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, recently issued a report that projected a 42 percent cut in its pollution management and mitigation programs before the 2016-17 fiscal year. A labor union representing federal scientists, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, has estimated the Canadian government is in the middle of a three-year purge, cutting nearly $3 billion in spending and up to 5,000 jobs from its science-based departments.
Meanwhile, Canada’s advertising campaign—which includes the pro-oil sands government website gowithcanada.ca—touts Canada as a reliable partner and a “world environmental leader in the oil and gas sector.” It also boasts of a new oil sands monitoring system “founded on science and transparency.”
Harper’s government defends the campaign, saying it wants to ensure that other countries get all the facts. But one fact the ads don’t mention is that the oil sands industry’s rising carbon footprint is projected to wipe out reductions elsewhere in Canada’s economy, putting Harper’s commitment to reduce annual emissions to about 3 percent above 1990 levels by 2020 out of reach.
Promise vs. Performance
Environment Canada estimates that greenhouse gases from the oil sands industry grew by 62 percent from 2005-2011. They are projected to grow a further 84 percent by 2020.
Harper has repeatedly pledged, but delayed, introducing rules to reduce those greenhouse gases. At the same time, his government dismantled a team of seven specialists who helped design the oil sands monitoring program. They also had the expertise to draft credible tests and regulations for air pollution and greenhouse gases in the oil sands. The government eliminated their jobs, forcing some into early retirement or transfers.
It has also apparently prevented the remaining three members from using all their skills to tackle the environmental challenges in the oil sands. An internal email, distributed within Environment Canada’s Emissions Research and Measurement Section (ERMS), revealed that the section’s manager couldn’t find any work for the specialists in the new federal and provincial Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) initiative that the government promotes in its advertising campaign.
“All of the staff are affected by the fact that there is no oil sands work…as a result of the changes,” wrote the manager, Fred Hendren, in the leaked email sent on April 14. “The intent is to find permanent duties for all of the staff.”
Environment Canada confirmed that the joint monitoring plan won’t be testing stack emissions directly from the source. Instead, the plan will test ambient air “at some distance from sources.”
Former members of the emissions research team, speaking through their union, have urged the government to allow them to measure emissions directly from stacks, in order to establish baseline data on mercury and other substances. The union said that would also allow the government to collect other information it needs to draw up credible regulations to reduce air pollution, water pollution and greenhouse gases.
Department spokesman Mark Johnson said the work done under the joint monitoring plan was meant to complement Alberta’s existing regulatory approach, which uses emissions data reported by oil companies.
But the union representing the scientists said the absence of independent data will compromise the credibility of any new regulations.
With the internal team disbanded, the department now hires consultants when it needs emissions research.
“When you cut an entire group and then simply farm it out to an outside contractor that really isn’t even qualified to do that work, that to me smacks of incompetence,” said local union president Stephen Vanneste. “But it’s also pretty mean-spirited. There’s no good intention there.”
The union said it is looking into possible grievances but needs one of the government scientists or engineers to make a formal complaint.
“People are very reluctant to stick their neck out because they are very much afraid—and justifiably so—that they’re going to get their heads cut off,” Vanneste said.
Peers, Papers and Potatoes
The Canadian government’s advertising also fails to mention some of the new peer-reviewed research emerging from the oil sands as part of the new monitoring program.
Those include studies that have documented rising toxic pollution such as mercury and cancer-linked compounds around oil sands production. But in most cases, the government scientists that have produced this research were unavailable for interviews, feeding into criticism that Harper is muzzling scientists who produce inconvenient research for industry. The allegations prompted a probe launched last year by a federal watchdog.
An industry spokesman told InsideClimate News that he wasn’t aware of recent cases of alleged muzzling of scientists. He said the industry supports transparency and wants scientists to provide context about their research and data, which is featured on the monitoring plan’s online public website.
“That’s really the foundation that we’ve been [doing by] trying to increase the level of transparency of all of the monitoring in that region,” said Greg Stringham, vice president of oil sands and markets at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The oil sands are natural deposits of bitumen—a tar-like heavy oil—mixed with sand under forests in northern Alberta. It takes massive amounts of water and energy to extract and process the oil, leaving a significant footprint on the surrounding water, air, wildlife and climate.
The process is more expensive than conventional oil production, but the industry has historically received billions of dollars in subsidies or tax incentives. It has also created tens of thousands of jobs while generating billions of dollars in tax revenues for both Alberta and Canada.
Stephane McLachlan, a professor of environmental science at the University of Manitoba, has praised his peers in government for doing credible research but he is concerned that the joint monitoring plan fails to examine human health impacts.
“It’s the hot potato that no one wants to hold,” said McLachlan.
He said his own research, examining consumption habits of local aboriginal communities and their traditional sources of food, found additional evidence of toxins accumulating in ducks, fish and some mammals that are putting human health at risk.
McLachlan said he felt compelled to release the data prior to peer review because of those risks.
The federal Canadian Health Department downplayed McLachlan’s findings, saying he hadn’t showed “conclusive” evidence linking the oil sands activities to human health problems.
It declined a request for an interview with one of its experts.
Environment Canada has also declined interviews with scientists who published recent peer-reviewed papers on mercury contamination. It didn’t provide an explanation for the lack of media access but instead provided written statements that downplay some aspects of the evidence.
The Harper government previously spent at least $9 million on a domestic ad campaign in 2012 to convince Canadians it was promoting economic growth while “maintaining high environmental protection standards.” These ads followed a first round of budget cuts to environmental monitoring programs, combined with new laws that reduced federal oversight.
Meantime, there’s no sign that public relations and marketing efforts are slowing down. The Harper government is paying international public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard at least $5 million to plan and manage the campaign. It recently renewed the firm’s contract until 2015, which could mean more ads are on the way.
“Often when we talk with decision makers on Capitol Hill, they also have observed that there really isn’t a difference between the government of Canada and the tar sands industry,” said Droitsch, the NRDC Canada project director. “I think that for those members of Congress who are concerned about the tar sands issue, it hasn’t helped Canada [and the industry] to be so closely aligned.”
6. Missoulian, “Columbia Falls Sawmill Announces Layoffs, Cites Timber Blocked by Litigation”
August 29, 2014
By Vince Devlin
COLUMBIA FALLS – F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber on Thursday announced it will curtail production at its sawmill here by the end of September, and lay off nine to 10 of its 120 employees.
In a written statement, company officials appeared to lay much of the blame on a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy last week that blocked a plan to build new logging roads into 36,700 acres of grizzly bear habitat in the Stillwater State Forest near Olney.
But Stoltze resource manager Paul McKenzie said the Stillwater Forest case was just a small part of a larger picture in which he says 200 million board feet of timber in western Montana is tied up in litigation.
“What (Molloy’s) decision did to us was make it critical we do it (lay off the 9 to 10 employees) right away,” McKenzie said.
Molloy concluded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by approving a state plan to issue a permit to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to “take” grizzly bears (i.e., harm their habitat) in the state forest.
“It is with extreme frustration that we announce this curtailment,” Stoltze Vice President Chuck Roady said in the news release. “At a time when lumber markets are rebounding, we are faced with having to reduce production due to lack of access to the raw material.”
Timothy Preso, the attorney who represented conservation organizations in the Stillwater case, questioned whether Molloy’s decision – cited in the first sentence of Stoltze’s press release – was the real reason.
“The area affected has been off-limits to logging for decades,” Preso said, adding that approximately two-thirds of the Stillwater Forest’s nearly 100,000 acres are not affected by Molloy’s ruling and remain available to logging.
Preso said Roady, who was not available for comment Thursday afternoon, “acknowledged they were faced with the need for layoffs anyway.”
Roady was quoted in the Flathead Beacon Thursday as saying, “We were facing this anyway. But the (Molloy decision) was the final jab in the gut.”
“He’s right,” McKenzie said of Preso. “Judge Molloy was not the deciding factor. Log supply has been the issue for a long time.”
But Molloy’s decision did trigger the company’s decision to reduce production hours from 80 to 60 a week, and lay off approximately 8 percent of its sawmill workforce, next month, McKenzie said.
The cuts are scheduled to take place Sept. 29. Stoltze has been operating for 102 years, and is the oldest family-owned sawmill in Montana.
“As a forester, it is disheartening to be surrounded by highly productive forests that could benefit from active management, yet still not have access to sufficient log supply to meet the production needs of our sawmill,” McKenzie said in the press release.
It is “extra frustrating,” McKenzie told the Missoulian later, that just as the economy is recovering from the worst markets he’s seen, a lack of supply has forced Stoltze’s hand.
“The Kootenai National Forest alone has a target of harvesting 50 million board feet, and we have a hard time getting to half that,” McKenzie said. “The primary reason is litigation.”
Representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Montana Environmental Information Center and Friends of the Wild Swan, plaintiffs in the Stillwater lawsuit, hailed Molloy’s ruling as critical for the protection of grizzly bears.
Grizzlies are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The judge found that Fish and Wildlife Service officials lacked a rational scientific basis when they approved new road construction in what is known as the “Stillwater Core.” The permit to “take” grizzly bears – again, “take” refers to habitat destruction that drives grizzlies out of their territory and leads to reduced reproduction – would have lasted for 50 years.
Earthjustice, the environmental law firm Preso works for that represented the conservation organizations involved in the lawsuit, said the state’s plan to log the Stillwater Core would have eliminated the last non-road grizzly habitat on state lands in Montana.
State land managers said impacts to grizzlies would be minimized by imposing seasonal restrictions on road use and logging.
“This is incredibly important to grizzly bears in the Stillwater State Forest,” Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan, said. “Bears don’t use calendars to know when an area is safe to raise their young and avoid conflicts with people. The court’s ruling ensures that bears get a fair shake.”
Matt Skoglund, director of the Northern Rockies office of the National Resources Defense Council, agreed.
“Fifty years is a long time, especially with the sobering reality of the impact of climate change in the Northern Rockies,” he said. “Building new roads in secure grizzly habitat is a dangerous road to go down.”
Preso said female grizzlies need areas like the Stillwater Core to raise their cubs, and that “Federal officials played fast and loose with the science in claiming otherwise. Fortunately we have courts in this country that require federal officials to make rational decisions and follow the rule of law.”
7. Greenwire, “Power Use by TV, Broadband Boxes Down 5% Under Voluntary Agreement – Report”
August 28, 2014
By Katherine Ling
Cable, satellite and broadband boxes last year saved consumers $168 million and enough electricity to power Pittsburgh homes for one year, as part of a voluntary energy efficiency agreement that industry hopes can pave the way for similar standards for other home gadgets.
The almost 5 percent drop last year in electricity consumption by digital video recorders (DVRs) and cable boxes found in 92 million homes across the nation was unveiled today in the 2013 progress report on the “set-top box” agreement between the pay TV industry and energy efficiency advocates.
Under a business-as-usual scenario without the voluntary agreement, set-top boxes would have cost consumers almost $350 million more in energy bills and emitted nearly 1.75 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the output of a 500-megawatt power plant, according to the study.
Set-top boxes consume the second-greatest amount of power in a home among consumer electronics — 18 percent — trailing behind televisions, which consume the most, at about 33 percent, according to a recent study from the Consumer Electronics Association (Greenwire, June 24).
The set-top box progress report — prepared by efficiency analysis firm D&R International Ltd. on behalf of the voluntary agreement steering committee — is the first annual report based on data provided by the service providers as required under the unusual collaborative approach agreement.
“The voluntary agreement is off to a great start,” Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and a lead negotiator of the agreement, said in a statement. “The savings that were achieved this year will grow dramatically over the next few years as the older less efficient models are eventually retired and replaced by new and improved models in the future.”
First signed in 2012 and expanded in 2013, the voluntary agreement aims to improve the efficiency of set-top boxes by up to 45 percent — saving an amount of energy equivalent to the output of three new power plants — cut consumers electric bills by $1 billion annually, and cut 5 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year through 2017.
The Energy Department and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) praised the final agreement, signed six months ago, applauding the persistence and cooperation of signatories include NRDC, the CEA, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Comcast, DIRECTV, DISH Network, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, Cox Communications, and manufacturers Cisco and EchoStar Technologies (E&ENews PM, Dec. 23, 2013).
The CEA cites the voluntary agreement as a model for future energy efficiency standards for consumer electronics, as DOE has turned its attention to the swiftly increasing battery chargers, computers and other gadgets becoming an integral part of everyday life and energy consumption. The CEA is critical of DOE’s regulatory process as inflexible and even counterproductive for the innovation and quick evolution in the consumer electronics industry.
CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro said the report “provides transparency, public accountability and a progress check on this non-regulatory initiative designed to deliver comprehensive energy and related cost savings for consumers and the country, while also protecting innovation and competition within our industry.”
Many in the pay TV industry found energy savings for set-top boxes while improving functionality and providing a better user experience by introducing the “whole-home” DVR — removing the need for a full box in every household room with a television and replacing it with a simpler, less power-hungry “thin client,” according to the report.
Companies also were able to include automatic power-down in at least 90 percent of the set-top boxes, and on average, new cable boxes used 14 percent less energy than those installed in 2012, the report says. The industry also made energy efficiency information on set-top boxes purchased after Jan. 1, 2014, readily accessible to consumers, in accordance with the agreement.
An independent auditor will verify the reported savings data from the services providers this fall, under the terms of the agreement, and a random audit of one of the service providers is currently ongoing, the study says.
Still, NRDC’s Horowitz said, the industry must still tackle the largest waste of energy: the sleep mode.
“In order to dramatically bring down national set-top box energy use and consumer utility bills, the pay TV industry and their suppliers must find a way to reduce the roughly $2 billion per year worth of electricity that existing set-top boxes consume when they are not being used,” Horowitz said. “We know the industry is hard at work to develop much more efficient models and are hopeful they are able to incorporate some of the energy-sipping technology currently used in smartphones and tablets.”
Service providers deployed software updates and equipped new equipment with “light sleep” mode, but at least one provider found that it “degraded the consumer experience” and is still working to find a solution, according to the report.
Also, the better capabilities of high-definition and advanced video processing increased the power consumption of devices that enable digital services on analog televisions, known as digital transport adapters (DTAs), although they still met basic energy efficiency requirements, the report says.
Under the agreement, service providers are set to test a “deep sleep” option this year.
8. WyoFile, “Yellowstone Grizzly Bears Remain Genetically Isolated”
September 2, 2014
By Kelsey Dayton
In 2005 a grizzly bear from the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem was found dead southwest of Anaconda, Montana. Frank van Manen, team leader of the interagency grizzly bear study team, didn’t know the cause of death, but the sub-adult male was found about half way between the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem — home of the Glacier National Park grizzlies — and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It was the closest attempt at the two populations mingling that biologists know of in recent history.
As wildlife managers consider removing Yellowstone grizzly bears from the endangered species list this year, the animals remain genetically isolated, a fact that worries some biologists while others say it isn’t an issue.
Genetic diversity helps animal populations thrive and also survive unforeseen challenges like disease or climate change, said Christine Wilcox, a biologist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Linkage is one of the top concerns among conservations groups when it comes to survival of the Yellowstone grizzly, she said. The bear population might be healthy now, but the species could find itself in trouble in the future without more genetic diversity. Wilcox said that by the time a problem is detected, it will be too late to protect linkage areas, which could be lost to development, and it will be even harder for the populations to naturally connect.
Grizzlies used to occupy so much territory, including the space between the Northern Continental Divide and the Greater Yellowstone ecosystems, it was common for bear populations to mingle. Today the two populations are separated by about 150 miles. Bears have been known to travel 100 miles in a season, so they could potentially still meet, but it’s a dangerous journey.
“Right now it’s a gauntlet run,” Wilcox said. “Yes they can make it. But the chance of a conflict, which leads to mortality, is really high.”
That will likely only get worse when the bears are delisted and protections in the linkage zones disappear. Some separation between the populations is fine, but total isolation isn’t good for either population, Wilcox said.
The Yellowstone bear’s genetic diversity is considered “moderate,” van Manen said. There are populations, such as in coastal Alaska, that have much lower diversity than the Yellowstone bears, and those animals are still healthy and vigorous, he said.
There also hasn’t been a decline in genetic diversity in the Yellowstone population. The inner agency grizzly bear study team monitors the genetic diversity of the bear population using DNA collected each time biologists capture bears. That genetic information tells scientists the age of the animal, and also provides data on the overall genetic diversity of the population, van Manen said. The monitoring would show if an animal from another ecosystem traveled into the Yellowstone, which hasn’t yet happened, but van Manen said he isn’t worried.
“It’s always desirable to have genetic exchange among populations,” van Manen said. “That allows populations to have that genetic diversity that allows the population to adapt to new circumstances. However, if you ask me if it’s essential, or a big concern for the greater Yellowstone, my answer is ‘no.’ We don’t see anything in our data that shows that would create a concern.”
Genetic issues don’t manifest unless population numbers are really low. It’s rare for wildlife populations to cross that threshold where the animals start inbreeding and it causes survival issues, van Manen said. If the bears were delisted and there were signs of genetic diversity declining in the Yellowstone bears, there’s protocol built into the conservation strategy including transplanting bears from other populations if necessary.
Genetic changes can take a long time to detect and often by the time there are obvious changes, the population is in serious trouble, said Erin Edge, Rockies and Plains representative with Defenders of Wildlife.
“Long-term connectivity is really important for resiliency of the population and long-term genetic health,” she said.
It’s particularly important in the Yellowstone population which, with an estimated 741 bears, has less genetic diversity than the Northern Continental Divide bears, which has a population estimated at about 1,000 bears and also could be delisted soon.
How the bears might naturally meet is unknown.
“It’s still kind of a best guess as to where and how the bears will connect, and none of it will matter if they get into trouble along the way,” Wilcox said. “In the end the grizzly bears will tell us where and how they’ll move.”
As that happens it’s important to educate people about living in what is again becoming bear country, Edge said.
Bears in both populations are expanding their range beyond the core areas into places they haven’t habituated for decades. The best way to encourage genetic health of the populations is to allow the bears to mingle and that means bear mortalities need to be minimized in the linkage areas, Edge said. Much of the land between the two ecosystems is private land and people who own it aren’t used to seeing bears.
The important thing is working on preventing human-bear conflicts by educating people about securing their property and attractants, like garbage, bird feeders and pet food. People must also become familiar with resources and strategies such as electric fences to protect livestock and orchards, Edge said.
Delisting the bears removes protections that help ensure safety as the bears move into new areas, but connectivity is still possible in a delisting world, she said.
How delisting the Yellowstone bears from the endangered species list, expected to happen this year, will impact that expansion is unknown. “It’s hard to predict how the states will manage the bears,” said van Manen.
The further bears move away from the core area, the higher the mortality rates as they encounter more roads and unsuitable habitat. In Yellowstone the bears are expanding their range further south and east more so than moving northwest toward the Northern Continental Divide population. But van Manen said he believes that eventually some bears, likely from the larger Northern Continental Divide population, will move into new genetic territory.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some genetic exchange within the next 10 years or so,” he said.
The study team and van Manen plan to present population and mortality numbers for the bears for the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee of the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee at its next meeting of wildlife managers and agencies on October 28 in Bozeman, Montana. A decision on whether or not to delist grizzly bears is expected by the end of the year.