All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Catching up on reading

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Finally! Exams are over and marked, time to catch up on reading.  Here are a few articles that particularly impressed me lately.

In Landscape Architecture Magazine, Kim Sorvig writes an in-depth, very personal article about fracking.  The whole article can be read for free here, but I couldn’t resist putting some excerpts:

Five and a half years ago, I learned we might lose our home to oil drilling.

Proponents of fracking say there is no fossil-fuel future without it. Fracking, they often claim, uses only sand and water safe enough to drink. Yet in 2005, Congress dubbed the ingredients of fracking fluid “proprietary” and exempt from the Clean Water Act and five other major federal laws; thanks to Dick Cheney’s involvement, this has been called the Halliburton Loophole. Sampled fracking wastes contain more than 600 identifiable chemicals. Hundreds are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors (which interfere with hormones regulating most living functions: see http://www.endocrinedisruption.com).

As is well known, proprietary info cannot be accessed.  As a result, if someone gets sick from drinking contaminated groundwater,

“You have to run an expensive battery of tests because you don’t know what chemicals might be there,” Donnan says, referring to the Halliburton Loophole. No one is allowed to know what has been put down a Pennsylvania well, not even firemen or ambulance drivers. The loophole is slick: Whatever is found, it can’t be proved to come from a formula that’s secret.

“Even doctors,” Donnan exclaims. “Doctors can get information to treat a patient, but they’re gagged. They can’t disclose it to help another patient or the general public.”

But is fracking fluid, or backflow, safe?

In 2008, just 180 miles west of Capitol Hill, fluid dumped after fracking killed a half-acre of the Fernow Experimental Forest in Parsons, West Virginia, a U.S. Forest Service research station. The event made national news as “a spill,” but this was no accident. The fluid had been sprayed deliberately, a method of waste disposal (legal in West Virginia) called “land application.” Ground cover died on contact. Trees dropped leaves immediately; more than half of them died within two years… But in the noticeable absence of research about drilling impacts, even one case makes it clear that fracking fluid can kill.

How about air pollution, then?

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did tests, but by federal law, individual compressors are considered “point sources.” As long as each unit doesn’t exceed its emissions limit, the cumulative multiple-unit emissions are legal.

“So don’t light any matches up here,” Donnan says. He’s serious.

The main problem, as seen by Sorvig, has to do with regulation (or lack of), something that we in BC’s Peace area share with our southern neighbours.  Here’s an example:  

Since the 1940s, USFS has been collecting irreplaceable long-term management data in Fernow Forest. The information is critical to the agency, the timber industry, and anyone managing or designing forested sites.

In 2007, the driller returned, targeting a different forest “compartment” near the neighboring Otter Creek Wilderness. In this location, drilling would punch through limestone bat caves linked to groundwater. Two bat species at Fernow are endangered… If the might of the federal government, backed by powerful timber interests, can’t use endangered species laws to protect a research site next to a wilderness, can anything?

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While in Victoria I discovered the local monthly Focus.  (Whole issues can be read free online as pdf; click here for July’s issue.)  I was particularly impressed by an in-depth interview of newly elected Andrew Weaver – because the interviewer, Leslie Campbell, gave Weaver a chance to focus on policy.  Here’s a sample:   

Clean tech—companies involved in wind and solar power, geothermal, biomass, transportation, and energy storage—would provide, he says, far more jobs than LNG—“something like four times as many as the whole oil and gas sector. Oil and gas jobs and LNG jobs are largely construction jobs and those will be met by transient workers.” Clean tech jobs, on the other hand, would be long-term and spread throughout BC. “It’s a much better way of creating distributed job growth,” he says.

BC is blessed, he points out, with large hydro dams—“big capacitators”—that, combined with a smart grid system, can act to stabilize base demand for electricity. “We could be…providing base demand largely from the other renewables and using the dams to provide it when, say, it’s not windy…that’s how we should move forward. We don’t need Site C, for example, because we have the ability with our existing demand and all the other renewables.”

So what’s wrong with the current policies of the BC government?

We have been sold a pipe dream on natural gas. The market is simply not going to be there…Russia has more than 20 times the reserves of all Canada combined [and] has just signed 30-year contracts to provide LNG for China and…they can do it through regular pipelines. Australia has just cancelled plans to build a big new LNG facility because the market is dropping.  That’s all going to spell doom to the Liberals’ revenue-generation plans in the not-too-distant future

The July issue of Focus includes this short article by Briony Penn on orcas:

Peter Ross [formerly from DFO, the latest casualty of Prime Minister Harper’s cutbacks to the scientific community] had some good news, despite a gloomy prognosis for government support. Although orca in our waters are the most contaminated animals on Earth, from the possible 100,000 chemicals released into the Salish Sea, there are signs that some of the big poisons are declining. PCBs banned in 1977 are starting to show signs of diminishing in the lipid content of fat in orca. Dioxins are going down and much of that is due to controls on pulp mill effluent. Fire surfactants, or PBDEs, are due to be banned next year. These chemicals are hormone mimickers, which have a profound effect on reproduction.

None of these scientists are going to accept the recent dismantling of environmental legislation from Ottawa without a fight, especially in light of news that the resident orca population has declined to 82, the lowest in more than a decade. The parting words from Ross were that we ignore toxicity of the ocean at our peril, as well as that of orca.

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I also read three great articles in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine.  The whole magazine is unusually rewarding this month; go grab a copy at your library (since the articles are behind a paywall).  There is a feature on a attempt at selling water from Icelandic glaciers and benefitting from global warming by a Canadian dentist turned promoter; an article about the murder of Steven Pollock, a genius of a mycologist, Paul Stamets style, who was developing magic mushrooms into serious psycho active medicine; and a gem of an editorial questioning our whole approach to debt – why it’s lenders who should get penalized.   Here’s a teaser:

Debt forgiveness is one of the most important innovations of modern capitalism, but it is a fairly recent one. Though the Constitution gives Congress explicit authority to enact “uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States,” early U.S. bankruptcy laws were short-lived and provided mostly for involuntary proceedings initiated by creditors. Before the elimination of federal debtors’ prisons in 1833, jail was a common consequence of failure to pay. Not until the Nelson Act of 1898 did the country have a lasting bankruptcy code and thus a framework for debt protection.

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