Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

Judge Pulls Spikes Off TransCanada’s Pipeline Tracks

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline has been hurtling along and blowing through opposition like a runaway train. Opponents of the pipeline haven’t exactly been meek and mild but TransCanada has been able to roll right over them without so much as a bump.

Most of the opposition to the pipeline has focused on its obvious ecological demerits; the dirty fuel’s filthy extraction at the source in Alberta, the near certainty of a rupture, the consequences of fuel spills in the  Ogallala Aquifer, and the increase in global emissions. Those concerns have given way like wet Kleenex in the face of TransCanada’s political and financial clout. The State Department’s recent report on the pipeline’s impact certainly doesn’t look like it will produce much friction – its conclusion that pushing ahead with the project won’t have any significant impact on global emissions or the rate of oil sand extraction is hardly calculated to put the brakes on the project.

While TransCanada has been able to sweep the nation’s environmental groups aside, a single judge in Nebraska has succeeded in taking the sheen off the company’s aura of  invincibility. The Nebraska legislature, in its wisdom, recently passed a law placing the state’s power of eminent domain at TransCanada’s disposal. In effect, it forced landowners to sell their property to TransCanada by transferring the power to force such sales from the Nebraska Public Service Commission – where it had resided for more than a century – to Governor Dave Heineman.

Late last month, District Judge Stephanie F. Stacy took a long hard look at that law and decided to drag it out behind the barn and put a bullet in its head. The law, she said, was unconstitutional and void in that it divested the PSC of authority and bestowed upon the governor the ability to wield the power of eminent domain without the possibility of judicial review. In other words, it allowed the governor to grab Nebraskans’ land and give it to a foreign company for that company’s profit.

Nebraskans are an ornery and independent lot, and some of the ranchers over whose land the pipeline is slated to run didn’t take kindly to having the governor  snatch their property up in such an imperious fashion. Three landowners whose property was in the path of the pipeline filed suit. The judge’s decision went over very well with them. The attorney who handled their case had reason to crow, saying, “They thought the governor would be a rubber stamp and he was.”

For the time being, TransCanada will have to negotiate with every individual landowner along the pipeline’s route, a prospect that must not fill the company’s directors with delight; the ranchers in the pipeline’s path haven’t been sending TansCanada Valentine cards. The issue will surely be fed into the appeals system where it will grind along. But the delay won’t do the company any favors either. The administration is unlikely to act on the State Department report while the court’s clear this issue off the tracks – the delay is a perfect excuse not to act. And Nebraska isn’t the only state gumming up the works. The Texas Supreme Court recently handed pipeline opponents a major victory in ruling that TransCanada couldn’t avail itself of the right of eminent domain under the state’s “common carrier” regulations. “We’re thrilled,” said one of the plaintiffs fighting TransCanada’s land grab, “because the Supreme Court has finally ruled in favor of us—the little guys—and against a foreign oil giant.”

Nobody likes the idea of having their property taken and handed over to a foreign company so that company can make money off the property. The misuse of eminent domain has been a volatile issue ever since the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London opinion upholding a city’s use decision to use eminent domain to take property from one private owner for the gain of another private owner.

If Keystone is running into a buzz saw over the issue in deep red, oil-friendly states like Nebraska and Texas, it’s got more trouble on its hands than it might have reckoned with. TransCanada’s train may be running at full throttle, but the tracks might not be stable.

Oil and Water Don’t Mix

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

Ogallala Aquifer via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama gave his long-awaited climate change speech this week. In it, he discussed possible approval of the Keystone Pipeline – the massive conduit to bring Canadian tar sands oil down to the gulf coast. In discussing the pipeline’s potential environmental effects, he focused – as most commentators do – on the impact of carbon emissions, both in extracting the tar sands oil and burning the stuff after it makes its way down the pipeline and into American (or Chinese) automobiles. “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” he said. “And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” Obama said that he would only approve the pipeline if the State Department certifies that it will not lead to a net increase in global carbon emissions. That drops the fate of the Keystone project in the lap of the new Secretary of State John Kerry who has not shown himself to be an enthusiastic backer of the plan.

The Keystone pipeline has been drawing lots of heated opposition of late, and not just from the usual tree-huggers and totebaggers.  Rock-ribbed Republican sections of the country are beginning to sour on the idea of sluicing some of the filthiest fuel ever devised across the entire center of the country.

And carbon pollution is hardly Keystone’s only problem, despite Obama’s emphasis on emissions. It’s not just the stuff flowing through the pipes which can cause problems when it’s ultimately burned. The pipelines themselves pose significant environmental hazards on their own.

Existing pipelines haven’t been doing Keystone any favors lately in the publicity department. The fact that the nation is crisscrossed with fuel pipes literally burst into the country’s consciousness when a natural gas line exploded in Bellingham, Washington in 1999, killing three boys playing nearby. A decade later, a PG&E pipeline exploded in Burlingame, California, killing eight people and leveling 38 homes. In March, an ExxonMobil pipeline dumped some 5,000 barrels of diluted bitumen onto Mayflower, Arkansas, forcing an evacuation, contaminating local rivers and lakes, and sickening local residents.

Then, just this month, a whopping 9.5 million liters of toxic oil waste leaked in Alberta, the source of Keystone’s tar sands oil.  The Globe and Mail tells us that across a broad expanse of northern Alberta, the landscape is dead. “Every plant and tree died” in the area touched by the spill, said James Ahnassay, chief of the Dene Tha First Nation. The leak is just one of several major spills in the region, and local residents are alarmed at what all those toxins will do to wetlands and their water supplies.

And what of Keystone? Well, aside from providing a means of moving filthy fuel from one of the largest and most destructive energy projects in the world, the proposed pipeline just happens to run smack dab through the Ogallala Aquifer, the principal source of water in an area composed of  174,000 square miles of eight states. The Ogallala Aquifer is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water necessary for residential and industrial use, and supporting a whopping one-fifth of  the wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle raised in the United States. It’s a big, big deal.

The Aquifer is already being severely stressed by drought and over-consumption.  In some areas, the water table has declined by 200 feet.  Aquifer residents, already alarmed about stresses to their vital water supply, aren’t taking kindly to the prospect of a foreign company laying down hundreds of miles of inevitably leaky pipe over that precious resource.  Quite aside from balking at TransCanada’s aggressive pursuit of eminent domain claims over farmland, High Plains residents are increasingly concerned about the possibility of oil leaking into their wells. One notable property of tar sands oil is that it sinks, rather than floats, making clean up difficult and expensive.

TansCanada is lobbying furiously to gain approval for it’s pipeline. But Secretary Kerry would be well advised to consider the likelihood of contaminating some of America’s key drinking and agricultural water as his agency weighs the environmental impact of the Keystone pipeline. Carbon emissions are only one of the problem Keystone poses. Its potential threat to one of our nation’s most vital water supplies should not be shrugged aside.

Update from the Great Soon-To-Be-Not-Quite-As-White North

Photo by wikimedia/PMX. Some rights reserved.

Photo by wikimedia/PMX. Some rights reserved.

You’ve heard of Canada. Exporters of the finest maple syrups, snow-dusted land of elk and hockey, America’s sun hat (and just to be clear, that was an intentional “land of milk and honey” joke). When last we checked in with the great white north, the government of Alberta was setting up advanced techniques to monitor oil sands, in anticipation of the “infamously stalled” Keystone Pipeline (more on that here).

Now it appears that, in the face of a recent “lobbying blitz” by Canadian officials in support of that dastardly Keystone XL, the necessary voice of opposition is on its way to Washington. Yes, Tom Mulcair (leader of the Official Opposition in Canadian government, which is currently his New Democratic Party) will arrive in D.C. this week to oppose recent claims by the Canadian government (whom he says is “playing people for fools”) that Canada is only backing the Keystone project because it’s not as bad for the climate and the environment as its opponents claim it is. Muclair argues that these statements are fundamentally dishonest, as Canada’s environmental record is spottier than officials claim (they are the only country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, and fail to meet the emission targets set at Copenhagen).

President Obama, who holds the omnipotent decision power on the Keystone project because it crosses country borders, has so far indicated that he is leanings towards scrapping Keystone, even as its proponents argue that this would result in a huge loss of potential jobs in the energy market.

However, as we also learn this week that 20% of Canada’s glaciers could melt by the year 2100 if the global average temperature rises 5.4 degrees or more in the interim time (a rate that fits with projected models), it seems to me that doing everything we can to protect Canada’s majestic natural beauty is in our own best interest! After all, a loss of all that glacial ice would result in a 1.4 inch rise in global sea levels, and we’ve discussed how that kind of change could negatively affect all sorts of other things.

Canada’s Environmental Monitoring Plan for Oil Sands Development

Photo by Martin Loader. Some rights reserved.

Oil sands, now synonymous with the infamously stalled Keystone Pipeline, have an inexorable future in Canada, regardless of Keystone’s fate. And our neighbors to the north aren’t denying it: a recent newsletter from law firm Gowlings reports on steps the Governments of Canada and Alberta are jointly taking to enhance monitoring systems that would track “cumulative effects and environmental change” in the oil sands area.

The Government of Alberta’s web page on oil sands monitoring is cautiously optimistic about development in the region – “Albertans have high expectations that we excel at both energy production and environmental protection – we can have it both ways.”

It appears that the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring is just one part of an attempt to provide, well, disinfectant through sunlight. By offering coordinated and comprehensive information to the public about oil sands development, the two governments hope to “enhance our ability to detect environmental change and manage cumulative effects.”

Some of the planned improvements to existing (and currently disparate) monitoring programs are as follows:

  • the number of sampling sites will be higher and over a larger area;
  • the number and types of parameters being sampled will increase;
  •  the frequency (how many times) that sampling occurs each year will be significantly increased; and
  • the methodologies for monitoring for both air and water will be improved

The plan not only describes the increased monitoring efforts to be phased in over the next three years, but also the development of an integrated data management system to host all the data – the Oil Sands Data Management Network. The new “OS_DMN” will presumably replace or supplement the existing Government of Alberta Oil Sands Information Portal, a “one-window source for information on the environmental impacts of oil sands development.

While response to the plan is reportedly positive, The Calgary Herald points out a few glaring omissions:

[one] thing that stands out is the upfront acknowledgment that “this plan does not deal with implementation issues like funding and responsibilities of existing organizations or institutions.”

The plan speculates that “the total cost of enhanced monitoring beyond what the two governments currently spend would be up to $50 million per year.”

Canada’s IP Office Follows US Lead on “Green” Patents

Photo by James Jordan. Some rights reserved.

Similar to changes made by the Green Technology Pilot Program, which was launched by the USPTO in late 2009, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office recently announced the approval of amendments expediting “the prosecution of an application when the invention is related to green technology.”

In line with “the Government’s priorities on science and technology, supporting the growth of small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), developing a clean energy economy and taking government action on global warming and capacity building,” the amended Canadian rules promise to fast-track patent applications that relate to “technology the commercialization of which would help to resolve or mitigate environmental impacts or to conserve the natural environment and resources.”

Canadian law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt explains the changes in a recent Update.

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