E. coli bacteria engineered to eat carbon dioxide

Feat could turn bacteria into biological factories for energy and even food.

E.coli bacteria.
The bacterium Escherichia coli has been engineered to grow by consuming carbon dioxide.Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/SPL

E. coli is on a diet. Researchers have created a strain of the lab workhorse bacterium — full name Escherichia coli — that grows by consuming carbon dioxide instead of sugars or other organic molecules.

The achievement is a milestone, say scientists, because it drastically alters the inner workings of one of biology’s most popular model organisms. And in the future, CO2-eating E. coli could be used to make organic carbon molecules that could be used as biofuels or to produce food. Products made in this way would have lower emissions compared with conventional production methods, and could potentially remove the gas from the air. The work is published in Cell1 on 27 November.

“It’s like a metabolic heart transplantation,” says Tobias Erb, a biochemist and synthetic biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg, Germany, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Plants and photosynthetic cyanobacteria — aquatic microbes that produce oxygen — use the energy from light to transform, or fix, CO2 into the carbon-containing building blocks of life, including DNA, proteins and fats. But these organisms can be hard to genetically modify, which has slowed efforts to turn them into biological factories.

By contrast, E. coli is relatively easy to engineer, and its fast growth means that changes can be quickly tested and tweaked to optimize genetic alterations. But the bacterium prefers to grow on sugars such as glucose — and instead of consuming CO2, it emits the gas as waste.

Ron Milo, a systems biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and his team have spent the past decade overhauling E. coli’s diet. In 2016, they created2 a strain that consumed CO2, but the compound accounted for only a fraction of the organism’s carbon intake — the rest was an organic compound that the bacteria were fed, called pyruvate.

Gas diet

In the latest work, Milo and his team used a mix of genetic engineering and lab evolution to create a strain of E. coli that can get all its carbon from CO2. First, they gave the bacterium genes that encode a pair of enzymes that allow photosynthetic organisms to convert CO2 into organic carbon. Plants and cyanobacteria power this conversion with light, but that wasn’t feasible for E. coli. Instead, Milo’s team inserted a gene that lets the bacterium glean energy from an organic molecule called formate.

Even with these additions, the bacterium refused to swap its sugar meals for CO2. To further tweak the strain, the researchers cultured successive generations of the modified E. coli for a year, giving them only minute quantities of sugar, and CO2 at concentrations about 250 times those in Earth’s atmosphere. They hoped that the bacteria would evolve mutations to adapt to this new diet. After about 200 days, the first cells capable of using CO2 as their only carbon source emerged. And after 300 days, these bacteria grew faster in the lab conditions than did those that could not consume CO2.

The CO2-eating, or autotrophic, E. coli strains can still grow on sugar — and would use that source of fuel over CO2, given the choice, says Milo. Compared with normal E. coli, which can double in number every 20 minutes, the autotrophic E. coli are laggards, dividing every 18 hours when grown in an atmosphere that is 10% CO2. They are not able to subsist without sugar on atmospheric levels of CO2 — currently 0.041%.

Milo and his team hope to make their bacteria grow faster and live on lower levels of CO2. They are also trying to understand how the E. coli evolved to eat CO2: changes in just 11 genes seemed to allow the switch, and they are now working on determining how.

The work is a “milestone” and shows the power of melding engineering and evolution to improve natural processes, says Cheryl Kerfeld, a bioengineer at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Already, E. coli is used to make synthetic versions of useful chemicals such as insulin and human growth hormone. Milo says that his team’s work could expand the products the bacteria can make, to include renewable fuels, food and other substances. But he doesn’t see this happening soon.

“This is a proof-of-concept paper,” agrees Erb. “It will take a couple years until we see this organism applied.” SOURCE

 

UN Calls Global Climate Outlook ‘Bleak’

Greenhouse gas emissions are rising and the window for action closing. Still, there are some hopeful trends.

Image result for coal plant emissions
Credit: Soundplan

The world has refused to slash its collective greenhouse gas emissions, narrowing the planet’s pathway back to a safe climate.

Authors of an annual United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report published Tuesday were uncharacteristically direct in their 2019 assessment of the gap between actual and desirable emissions levels.

“The summary findings are bleak,” they write. “Countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions, meaning that deeper and faster cuts are now required.”

How deep and how fast? Nations must halve their 2018 pollution levels by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Global emissions have risen about 1.5% a year in the last decade, plateauing between 2014 and 2016.

The new report is part of a larger trend among high-profile scientific assessments published in the last 18 months, each featuring increasingly blunt language from a community not known for it. Examples include three studies from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They addressed limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius, how land is changing around the world and the effects of higher temperatures on iced areas and oceans.

This latest research—the tenth edition of the annual Emissions Gap report—is a hard-check on sentiment, said Leah Stokes, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Current policies could lead to 60 billion metric tons of climate pollution in 2030. To have a shot at staying below 1.5 degrees, that figure needs to be 25 billion tons.

“That’s easy math,” she said. “We’re double what we need to be.”

China's Coal Dependence A Challenge For Climate
Smoke billows from a coal fired power plant in Shanxi, China in 2015.  A history of heavy dependence on burning coal for energy has made China a huge source of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions. Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images AsiaPac

Of course, “bleak” doesn’t mean hopeless, the researchers said. Political and civic attention to climate change is increasing, led in many nations by younger citizens. Renewable energy is the cheapest source of power in much of the world and new utility-scale systems can already compete with the marginal operating costs of existing coal plants.

Countries know what they need to do, even if they’re not yet doing it. In 2009, G20 nations agreed to phase out fossil-fuel subsidies, although none have actually set a deadline for doing so. Despite scientists’ pleas to zero-out emissions by mid-century, only a few nations—and none in the G20—have given the UN climate administration a timeline for achieving it.

There’s still a path to climate safety, and most of it runs through those G20 countries, since they make up almost 80% of emissions. As a group, the world’s biggest economies are likely to meet 2020 climate pledges made in 2010—though with the notable exception of, among others, the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The new report breaks out specific recommendations for seven key emitters: the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, South Korea and South Africa.

China, said the UN, should ban all new coal-fired power plants—despite last week’s news that the country is still on a coal-plant binge) and make electricity carbon-free. The U.S. should regulate power plants, introduce carbon pricing and decarbonize its buildings and transportation systems, the UN says—but the realities of domestic politics in America make that unlikely.

The Chevron Corp. Permian Trove Is Changing U.S. Shale
A pumpjack operates on an oil well in the Permian Basin near Crane, Texas, in 2018. Photographer: Bloomberg

Indeed, the report makes clear that the time for half-measures has passed.

“Incremental changes will not be enough, and there is a need for rapid and transformational action,” the authors write. Climate-proofing the global economy “will require fundamental, structural changes” along with “investments in defensive and adaptive infrastructure” and a massive shift in “values, norms, consumer culture and world views.”

Those changes will require at least $1.6 trillion in energy-sector investment annually through 2050, they estimate. That’s $48 trillion.

Astonishingly, some nations are still increasing their plans for fossil-fuel production, making an already bad situation worse. The  UNEP last week issued its first Production Gap Report, a related initiative that looks at the scale of fossil-fuel resources nations can or expect to develop. Overall, the world may produce 50% more coal, oil and gas than is compatible with a 2 degree Celsius scenario, and 120% more than a 1.5 degree scenario requires.

“The climate problem is mainly a fossil-fuel problem” rather than an emissions problem, said Peter Erickson, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and contributor to the production-gap report. “In the long-term, it may be better to talk about it that way.”

Kenney campaign manager fined by Elections Alberta

A campaign manager for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been fined by Elections Alberta and has had his request to throw out the fine by the courts dismissed.

A campaign manager for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been fined by Elections Alberta and has had his request to throw out the fine by the courts dismissed. The failed appeal by Alan Hallman took place just days before the government shut down an office investigating election wrongdoings.

Court documents obtained by the Western Standard show Court of Queen’s Bench Justice A.L. Kirker threw out the appeal by Hallman on Nov. 13th.

Hallman – a close friend and advisor to the premier – had appealed a fine of $1,500 handed down by Elections Alberta.

Details in the document were scarce but appears to centre around Hallman handing out election pamphlets that did not meet the required legal criteria.

Kenney’s lawyer, former solicitor general Johnathon Denis argued in court the matter was simply an administrative error.

Neither side of the case asked for costs to be covered.

In a statement issued after the WS broke the story, the UCP said: “The event in question took place during the 2017 Calgary-Lougheed by-election, wherein there was a disagreement between the individual in question and an Elections Alberta official visiting the office. An administrative fine was issued against the individual. No violation was found against the candidate nor the Calgary-Lougheed UCP campaign as an entity.

“The Party considers this matter closed.”

Hallman couldn’t be reached for comment. Denis said he couldn’t speak until talking to Hallman.

The move comes days after the province passed Bill 22, which eliminated the office of the Election Commissioner and rolled it into the responsibility of the Chief Electoral Officer of Elections Alberta.

Alberta’s Ethics Commissioner warned UCP MLAs of a potential conflict of interest in voting to fire the investigator looking into their party.

Prior to his firing, Lorne Gibson had handed out more than $210,000 in fines against people involved in Jason Kenney’s campaign to be UCP leader in 2017.

The government has said, if they decide, the electoral officer can continue with Gibson’s investigations that were ongoing.

Kenney said merging the office will save taxpayers more than $1-million over five years. SOURCE

 

Despite promise to Ontario, Ford cannot avoid pricing carbon


Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced formal plans to end the province’s cap-and-trade program, saying the measure was nothing more than a government cash grab that didn’t help the environment. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

When Ontario’s premier Doug Ford announced that “as of June the 29th, the cap and trade system, the carbon tax, they’re done.” Ford was referring not to a carbon tax (which Ontario does not have), but rather to his promise to withdraw from the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), an inter-jurisdictional cap and trade regime which currently includes Ontario Quebec and California.

Here and elsewhere, Ford has conflated “the carbon tax” and “cap and trade” in a manner that suggests the two are interchangeable. This should sound alarm bells for Ontarians, given Ford’s task was essentially to choose between the two very distinct carbon pricing systems: under the Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate, any province declining to implement their own carbon pricing mechanism is subject to federal regulation on carbon.

The WCI is a cap and trade system, wherein the GHG emissions of polluting entities are limited (capped) though the limited issuance of emission allowances, and entities with allowances to spare can sell them to entities who failed to keep emissions below the cap. The result is an overall reduction in GHGs and an incentive for large emitters to curb pollution.

By contrast, a carbon tax is paid by on all fossil fuel combustion by consumers at all levels, and while it is an effective way to raise funds for investment into climate change mitigation activities, carbon taxes have not been demonstrated to reduce GHG emission in and of themselves.

By withdrawing from the WCI and declining to propose an alternative mechanism to curb GHG emissions, Ford leaves Ontario subject by default to Canada’s federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Act: a bonafide carbon tax.

The relative merits of a carbon tax vs a cap and trade regime are complex and debatable. However the very act of withdrawing from the WCI is likely to come with a high price tag for the Ontario tax payer. Ford has earmarked 30 million dollars to fight the Trudeau government on its (legally sound) right to enforce a price on carbon. But the cost of taking on Trudeau’s liberals in court is likely to be dwarfed by a bigger legal and financial battle: Ontario’s large emitters have already paid out $3 billion under the WCI, and are expected to come after the province to recuperate those funds.

While Canada may be falling short of its commitments to reduce emissions under the Paris Agreement, the Pan Canadian Framework makes it clear that failing to price carbon is no longer an option in Canada. Ford’s remaining options are not between pricing carbon and not pricing it; they are between a robust existing cap and trade system and a bumpy ride towards a federally mandated carbon tax. In declining to propose his own alternative, Ford has chosen the latter. SOURCE

Canada appeals court orders tobacco firms to pay billions in damages

Image result for court judgement Imperial Tobacco Canada, Rothmans Benson & Hedges and JTI-MacDonald
Rothmans, Benson & Hedges Inc., Imperial Tobacco Canada and JTI-Macdonald Corp. must pay damages to 100,000 Quebec smokers.

A Canadian court has upheld the bulk of a decision that ordered three tobacco companies to pay billions in damages.

The judgment involves class action suits that were consolidated against Imperial Tobacco Canada, Rothmans Benson & Hedges and JTI-MacDonald.

The companies had appealed a 2015 ruling in favour that ordered them to pay over C$15bn (£8.5bn; $11bn).

The plaintiffs were Quebec smokers who said the firms failed to warn them of health risks associated with smoking.

Rothmans, Benson & Hedges said on Friday it will seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

JTI-Macdonald Corp said it “fundamentally disagrees” with the decision and is considering all options, including an appeal.

Plaintiffs said the firms knew since the 1950s that their product was causing cancer and other illnesses and failed to warn consumers.

The companies had argued that Canadians have had a “high awareness” of smoking health risks for over half a century and say they have been strictly regulated.

The Quebec Court of Appeal sided on Friday with a lower court decision that concluded the companies had failed to provide adequate information about the “safety defect” in their tobacco products.

This is the largest award for damages in the country‘s history and will include interest on those damages.

The two class-action lawsuits were originally filed in 1998 before they were consolidated.

Smoking rates have reduced steadily in Canada over the years and in 2017 just under 17% of Canadians smoked at least occasionally.

In recent years, US courts have ordered tobacco companies to pay large awards.

But those payouts are often reduced upon appeal.

A $28 bn (£18.3 bn) ruling against Philip Morris was reduced to $28m on appeal in 2011.

American tobacco firms agreed in 1998 to pay US states over $200 bn (£131 bn) in fines in what is the largest civil litigation suit in US history. US states have been criticised for not spending enough of the compensation on anti-smoking programmes. SOURCE

The dirty secret of capitalism — and a new way foreward

Make sure you take the time today to watch this 17 minute video!

Rising inequality and growing political instability are the direct result of decades of bad economic theory, says entrepreneur Nick Hanauer. In a visionary talk, he dismantles the mantra that “greed is good” — an idea he describes as not only morally corrosive, but also scientifically wrong — and lays out a new theory of economics powered by reciprocity and cooperation.

Government consultation shows parents overwhelmingly reject class size increase: sources

Image result for ontario class sizeOntario Class Size Changes Will Cut 10,000 Teachers’ Jobs In 5 Years: Watchdog

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Global News has learned parents that took part in the province’s education consultations overwhelmingly rejected an increase in class sizes.

According to sources with knowledge of the survey results, approximately 70 per cent of parents felt an increase in class sizes would negatively impact students’ learning. Global News has also learned the results show a majority of parents were opposed to the government moving towards more e-learning for students.

Ontario education minister announces plan to tackle bullying

“I think it shows that parents know what’s good for their kids, and they know a significant increase in class size, especially for kids that are struggling, will make it very difficult to learn,” a source not authorized to speak publicly told Global News on Saturday.

The Ministry of Education has withheld the results of the survey despite multiple attempts by numerous groups to gain access to the information.

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In September, Global News reported the ministry had blocked a freedom-of-information request from advocacy groups, including Ontario Families for Public Education.

When contacted Friday for comment on the results of the class size survey, Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office refused to provide a clear answer as to why the critical information continues to be withheld.

Sources with the ministry, who are not authorized to speak publicly, say the survey was conducted when the government planned to move forward increasing the average class size ratio in grades 9-12 from 22:1 to 28:1 and that there is a “sky-is-falling” narrative by certain voices. In October Lecce announced the government had tabled an offer to the high school teacher’s union to reduce that ratio to 25:1.

In September, Global News reported the ministry had blocked a freedom-of-information request from advocacy groups, including Ontario Families for Public Education.

When contacted Friday for comment on the results of the class size survey, Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office refused to provide a clear answer as to why the critical information continues to be withheld.

Sources with the ministry, who are not authorized to speak publicly, say the survey was conducted when the government planned to move forward increasing the average class size ratio in grades 9-12 from 22:1 to 28:1 and that there is a “sky-is-falling” narrative by certain voices. In October Lecce announced the government had tabled an offer to the high school teacher’s union to reduce that ratio to 25:1.

In September, Global News reported the ministry had blocked a freedom-of-information request from advocacy groups, including Ontario Families for Public Education.

When contacted Friday for comment on the results of the class size survey, Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office refused to provide a clear answer as to why the critical information continues to be withheld.

Sources with the ministry, who are not authorized to speak publicly, say the survey was conducted when the government planned to move forward increasing the average class size ratio in grades 9-12 from 22:1 to 28:1 and that there is a “sky-is-falling” narrative by certain voices. In October Lecce announced the government had tabled an offer to the high school teacher’s union to reduce that ratio to 25:1.

In September, Global News reported the ministry had blocked a freedom-of-information request from advocacy groups, including Ontario Families for Public Education.

When contacted Friday for comment on the results of the class size survey, Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office refused to provide a clear answer as to why the critical information continues to be withheld.

Sources with the ministry, who are not authorized to speak publicly, say the survey was conducted when the government planned to move forward increasing the average class size ratio in grades 9-12 from 22:1 to 28:1 and that there is a “sky-is-falling” narrative by certain voices. In October Lecce announced the government had tabled an offer to the high school teacher’s union to reduce that ratio to 25:1.

In September, Global News reported the ministry had blocked a freedom-of-information request from advocacy groups, including Ontario Families for Public Education.

When contacted Friday for comment on the results of the class size survey, Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office refused to provide a clear answer as to why the critical information continues to be withheld.

Sources with the ministry, who are not authorized to speak publicly, say the survey was conducted when the government planned to move forward increasing the average class size ratio in grades 9-12 from 22:1 to 28:1 and that there is a “sky-is-falling” narrative by certain voices. In October Lecce announced the government had tabled an offer to the high school teacher’s union to reduce that ratio to 25:

In September, Global News reported the ministry had blocked a freedom-of-information request from advocacy groups, including Ontario Families for Public Education.

When contacted Friday for comment on the results of the class size survey, Education Minister Stephen Lecce’s office refused to provide a clear answer as to why the critical information continues to be withheld.

Sources with the ministry, who are not authorized to speak publicly, say the survey was conducted when the government planned to move forward increasing the average class size ratio in grades 9-12 from 22:1 to 28:1 and that there is a “sky-is-falling” narrative by certain voices. In October Lecce announced the government had tabled an offer to the high school teacher’s union to reduce that ratio to 25:1.

MORE

Alberta coal phase-out a lesson for global green energy transition, says think-tank


The Atco Battle River Generating Station near Forestburg, Alberta, December 19, 2016. The NDP government has announced it will shut down all coal mines in the province. Photograph by Todd Korol for National Post

A just transition to new energy sources is possible and Alberta can be a leader, a report from the non-partisan Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta said Wednesday.

Titled Alberta’s Coal Phase-Out: A Just Transition?, the report uses Parkland County as a case study to argue that Alberta’s accelerated phase-out of coal-fired electricity can be a blueprint for jurisdictions around the world seeking to transition to cleaner energy sources in the face of an ongoing climate crisis.

A just transition means one in which extractive resource workers do not shoulder an unfair proportion of the costs of shifting to cleaner energy sources.

“It is possible to take action on climate and create a lot of economic activity as well as new job creation,” said Ian Hussey, research manager at the institute who co-authored the report with Emma Jackson.

The report details that through concerted government action and funding — $45 million from the province and $84 from the federal government — there will be little coal-fired electricity in the province at all by 2023, six years ahead of schedule.

Alberta’s transition away from coal-fired electricity in 2015 — which then accounted for more than 50 per cent of the province’s installed capacity — was a hallmark of the former NDP government’s efforts on climate change.

By 2029, 14 of the province’s 18 facilities will be transitioned to natural gas, reducing sector emissions from 45.2 megatonnes in 2016 to 25 in 2030.

“Communities and workers that worked in the coal power industry are going to be affected for years,” said Hussey. “And they need some support from the provincial and federal government to transition to new jobs or to transition to having other economic sectors active in local communities.”

With 2,890 estimated lay-offs in coal mining and related power jobs by 2029, Hussey said funding for affected workers and communities, such as in Parkland County, where infrastructure projects helped create long-lasting jobs, is essential to ensuring continued job security and community well-being.

“These are the industries of the future where there’s going to continue to be job growth in the coming years,” said Hussey.

The programs also make business sense for three major affected companies — ATCO, TransAlta and Capital Power — and the provincial government as it considers which sectors to invest in for job creation and economic growth.

“If (the UCP) are really concerned about costs (and) creating jobs, there are jobs to be created in renewable energy, and it actually costs the government and consumers less than promoting gas or coal power,” said Hussey.

Now that a new government is in place, Hussey says the transition is unlikely to be reversed now that “the train left the station.” But the disappearance of multiple economic diversification initiatives under the UCP, he said, means momentum on that front is slowing down when jobs in renewable sectors could be heating up.

“The lesson is that transitions like these don’t happen overnight,” said Hussey. “There’s a substantial emphasis on the need for public sector leadership during an energy transition.” SOURCE

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Is the world ready to end the coal era and embrace clean energy?

OPINION | Jason Kenney’s pugilistic approach to governing means finding enemies everywhere

Having provoked public sector unions, Alberta premier will head off to Ottawa to make demands on the Liberals


Alberta Premier Jason Kenney holds a media conference at the United Conservative Party’s annual general meeting in Calgary on Sunday. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

When 1,000 protesters staged a massive rally outside Alberta’s United Conservative Party meeting in Calgary on Saturday, the UCP couldn’t have been happier.

Any other political leader and political party would be horrified to have an army of angry opponents turn up at their annual general meeting.

But not Jason Kenney. And not his UCP.

For Alberta Conservatives, having hundreds of public sector workers chanting “Jason Kenney has got to go!” was a badge of honour, proof that the Kenney government is on the right track with policies that cut spending and slash public sector jobs.

“Some of this will be controversial, some of it will invite protests — saw one today,” said Kenney in his hour-long speech to conventioneers Saturday night, as he managed to make a joke of the protest. “I’m reminded of what Premier Ralph Klein used to say: ‘If a day goes by and there’s not a protest, I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.'”

People protest outside of the Alberta UCP’s annual general meeting in Calgary on Saturday. (Lauren Krugel/The Canadian Press)

In fact, it looked as if Kenney had gone out of his way to make sure there would be a massive protest on the front steps of his convention. On Friday, the government sent letters to public sector unions, notifying them that as many as 6,000 jobs will be cut over the next three years.

Any other premier and any other government would want to keep that sobering news secret until after their annual convention.

But not Kenney. And not his UCP government.

They seemed to deliberately poking a stick in the hornets’ nest that is Alberta’s beleaguered public sector, which is not only facing job cuts, but also wage reductions and losing control of their pension plans. MORE

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The hidden costs of New England’s demand for Canadian hydropower

 

This story by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling is supported by the Pulitzer Center. It is the first in a two-part series.


Alex Saunders, 78, sits at his home in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. He says he’s had to adapt to a changing world, and that Canadian hydro-electricity projects supported by New England’s energy purchases are threatening the traditional way of life of the region’s Innu and Inuit. Photo by Michael G. Seamans/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, Newfoundland — Amid the last 20 years of worsening impacts from climate change, environmentalists in Vermont and New Hampshire have scrambled to nudge state leadership toward ambitious renewable energy goals.

And a key component of meeting those goals has been Canadian hydropower, a cost-effective, reliable resource that is often billed as clean, green energy.

The New England ISO, which regulates New England’s electricity infrastructure, currently gets 1.4 Terawatt hours of electricity from damming projects from the provinces of Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, some of which goes to New Hampshire. About a third of Vermont’s energy comes from Canadian hydro plants through the Highgate interconnection.

That’s enough to power about 400,000 New England homes. And even with the permitting failure of the proposed Northern Pass project — a 192-mile transmission line across New Hampshire that would have carried hydropower to southern New England — those numbers are expected only to increase.

But hundreds of miles to the north, indigenous residents say the “green” power purchased by New Englanders comes at a great cost to native communities’ local environment, livelihoods and their health.

“Think about what you’re buying here,” 78-year-old Alex Saunders said in his graveled voice last month, in his living room in Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador. “You’re buying the misery from the local people of northern Canada. That’s not a good thing.”

Wearing dark-blue suspenders over a wrinkle-free dress shirt, Saunders sat in the living room of his neat, modern home; above his head, a wall-mounted harpoon spoke to his career as captain of a successful commercial fishing operation, while a soft divot on the surface of his balding head spoke to the dangers of growing up in a remote and rugged wilderness along the subarctic Labradorian coast.

The divot has been there since Saunders was 3, when he and his older brother were digging for mice outside their remote cabin in the woods. When an inadvertent swing of the mattock — a gardening tool shaped like a pick-axe — fractured his skull, his brother carried his bloody body inside; there, his mother poured kerosene over the wound, packed it with lichen and spiderwebs, and wrapped his head in a snug cap. Two days later, he regained consciousness.

By then — the 1940s — the forces of colonization had a long-established pattern of ripping apart First Nations communities in the region. His mother was orphaned at 6 when the Spanish flu decimated her Inuit village of Okak in 1918, and his father, of Innu and English descent, was orphaned at 7.

Thousands of children were separated from their families and forced to attend English-only residential schools, while Inuit and Innu were compelled to trade their independent, nomadic lifestyle for a wage-based economy and living in what Saunders calls “white people houses.”

To many Inuit, the damming projects along the Churchill River are just the latest — and in some ways the worst — expression of ongoing colonization of their people.

New England’s energy crisis

New England’s appetite for hydroelectricity has stimulated a juggernaut industry across the Northern border — 62% of the energy Canada produces is from hydropower, amounting to a $37 billion contribution to Canada’s GDP and 135,000 jobs, according to a 2015 report from the Canadian Hydropower Association.

Muskrat Falls
Muskrat Falls Generating Facility in February 2019. Nalcor photo

The environmental impacts of that energy are tied up in more than 900 large dams on Canada’s waterways, with 14 of its largest 16 rivers dammed, according to International Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Saunders’ hometown of Happy Valley-Goose Bay (Labrador’s largest city with 8,000 residents), lies where the mighty Churchill River flows into Lake Melville, the catchment area for Labrador’s largest watershed. At the eastern end of the lake, the waters flow into the Labrador Sea near the unforgiving tundra terrain of the Inuit — here, polar bears nose into tents, temperatures regularly reach 20 below, and the slightest miscalculation during travel can send dogs, sled and driver through rotten ice and into deadly waters.

The relentless flow of the Churchill is what produces most of New England’s Canadian hydroelectricity. About 170 miles upstream from Lake Melville, a large hydroelectric project — the Churchill Falls Generating Station — was built in 1970 as a partnership between state-owned provincial corporations. Capable of producing 5,428 megawatts of electricity, the Churchill Falls project is, even today, the second-largest hydro plant in Canada, and 10th-largest in the world.

Nalcor, a partner in the Churchill Falls project, is nearing completion on another hydroelectricity project on the same river, the 824-megawatt Muskrat Falls.

Located just 25 miles upriver of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Muskrat Falls features a new dam, which flooded 16 square miles of traditional Innu hunting grounds earlier this year.

The Innu, who had a governmentally recognized claim to the land, approved the project in exchange for terms including a cash payment of about $2 million a year, but Saunders said the land was also heavily used by other groups, including the Inuit and the Nunavut.

“Everyone had a connection to that area. Everyone knew it was a special place,” Saunders said. “That’s where the old trappers would walk up over the land, portage with the big canoes and 500-pound packs, they’d walk over the [expletive] mountain. That area was very well-used and revered by the people.”

Saunders, an Inuit elder, has devoted much of his time in recent years to passing on his cultural knowledge to a younger generation, in part by writing books about his life experiences. Like most people in his community, he is opposed to the dams on many grounds, but is most bothered by their effect on the local food supply.

Country food 

The area around the Churchill and Lake Melville is full of First Nations people who have a deep connection to the land; that connection is nurtured through the procurement, and eating, of “country food.”

“Number one, I really like seal meat. And seal fat,” Saunders said. “Caribou is second. We ate ducks, geese, ptarmigan and the spruce (grouse). A lot of fish.”

In his boyhood cabin in the woods, his mother made shiva — cod liver, fried to extract some of the grease, and then made into a pate.

“We would have a barrel of shiva in our porch and we would have a barrel of blackberries,” he said. “Normally the berries would be froze, but the liver wouldn’t freeze because of the oil.”

He would take a handful of each, and mix them together — “like an ice cream treat.”

As a young adult, Saunders spent extended periods of winter fishing in Goose Bay with a friend.

“I certainly did that a lot in my drinking days,” he said. “We’d be here in town drunk for a week, or maybe 10 days. Get out of money and be just in the wrecks. Shaking, throwing up. So we’d get the (expletive) out of town, is what we’d do.”

They would walk for miles, and pitch a lakeside tent to sleep in. Every morning, they went to their fishing hole where, dressed in denim jeans and long underwear against subzero temperatures, they built a windbreak from blocks of snow.

“We’d sit by the hole for hours,” he recalled. “We’d fill these gunny sacks, fill them right up with smelt. Stay there until we had maybe eight or 10 of them full of three or 4,000 smelts. Then we’d come back to town. Then we’d sell them for 2 cents a smelt. Then we’d get drunk for another week. Then we’d go back out on the land again and do it all again.”

Though Saunders, who gave up drinking 40 years ago, still prefers country food, it is no longer a practical necessity for him. He made his fortune as a commercial fisherman — as captain of a small crew, he’s chased stocks of cod, crab, scallops and much more throughout northern waters that stretch from Newfoundland, to Greenland, to Scotland.

But as he worked, he began to notice a problem, first in the bitterest cold, and then in increasingly warm temperatures: His fingertips would get white and numb. And after the numbness, Saunders would be struck with “pain like the devil.”

On the advice of a doctor, Saunders sent a bit of his hair to be tested in a lab in Chicago. He soon learned that he was suffering from methylmercury poisoning.

Mercury is a naturally occurring substance, but once it enters lakes and rivers, it is absorbed by aquatic bacteria and transformed into methylmercury, which can damage the neurological system of humans.

Hydro-Quebec acknowledges the presence of the substance in some of its properties.

“In recently impounded hydroelectric reservoirs, the green parts of the terrestrial vegetation (i.e., the ground cover, leaves and moss) provide food for the bacteria that convert the inorganic mercury to methylmercury,” the company says on its website.

Researchers from Harvard University have found that Lake Melville’s patterns of water stratification, which are driven in part by its mix of fresh and salt water, may also concentrate the methylmercury, and magnify its effects.

As the toxic metal passes through the food chain, it accumulates in cod livers and smelt, as well as in the fatty tissues of other fish, seals and birds.

After concerns about methylmercury poisoning were first raised, both Nalcor and the Nunatsiavut Government tested local Inuit populations living downstream of the Churchill Falls dam, and both concluded that they have elevated levels of mercury in their systems. The more an Inuk relies on country food, the higher his or her levels of contamination.

Nalcor and the Nunatsiavut Government, which represents the Inuit, disagree on the extent to which the dams affect mercury levels. Nalcor has implemented a monitoring program to track mercury in the environment and work with government agencies to, if necessary, modify public health recommendations for certain types of fish consumption.

The Nunatsiavut Government says the testing is not comprehensive enough. It also failed in a bid to compel Nalcor to spend a considerable sum to remove mercury-laden vegetation and cap wetlands before flooding Muskrat Falls in late August.

Alex Saunders, 78, is reflected in a an earlier picture of himself from the early 80’s, at his home in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Saunders, of First Nations heritage, was raised learning how to survive in harsh sub-arctic environments. Photo by Michael G. Seamans/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

 

Many First Nations residents say that, after centuries of being forced to assimilate into Western culture, the hydroelectricity projects are now driving a wedge between themselves and their most important connection to the land — their food.

Saunders has no doubt that the increased methylmercury levels found in fish downstream of the Churchill Falls project contributed to his own diagnosis of “very high” levels of methylmercury.

“It must have, right? Where else would I get it from?” he said. “Primarily, I lived on food from this area.”

Saunders, who still gathers herbs to treat a variety of ills, decided to treat his mercury poisoning with an alternative medicine. In chelation therapy, a synthetic chemical called ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid is administered through an IV. The chemical attracts heavy metals from the bloodstream before exiting. Because it carries the risk of severe side effects, chelation is controversial in both the U.S. and Canada, but Saunders said it worked for him.

“I purged my system,” he said. “Now look at me. I’m going to be 79, and I can pass for 65 easy enough.”

Continued marginalization

Describing a dynamic that would be familiar to any rural resident who feels caught in the political gravity of urban population centers, Saunders says Labrador is marginalized within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Labrador has 70% of the province’s natural resources, but only about 6% of its population, which Saunders said results in Labrador’s needs being habitually overshadowed in the provincial House of Assembly.

Many in Happy Valley-Goose Bay see the marginalization of the Inuit in the state-backed Muskrat Falls project as just the latest example in an ongoing campaign of cultural genocide.

“I think it’s wicked,” said Jan Morrison, whose husband, a lifelong resident, introduced her to the Muskrat Falls area.

Morrison said eco-conscious New Englanders should be as thoughtful about their power as they are about their food.

“Do you think it’s OK to get green beans from China? Or do you think that is possibly a bad idea, for many reasons? Like, wake up. Just because it’s your power doesn’t mean you shouldn’t examine where it came from.”

Roberta Benefiel, a director with Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, has traveled to the Twin States, and throughout New England, several times to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of what the group calls “MegaDams.”

“It’s not just about methylmercury,” Benefiel said. “It’s about the natural flow of the river, and the loss of a valuable natural resource.”

Though Saunders is opposed to the dam, he’s done fighting it.

“I’m not going to make it the focal point of my life,” he said, “I won’t support it. And I don’t like it. But you’ve got to roll with the punches. I’m 78, going to be 79 years old. I’ve learned through my life’s journey that you’ve got to accept what comes your way. And you have to try to accommodate anything that’s happening and you have to adjust to it.”

Saunders has tried to shield his children from the worst impacts of colonization. A successful career on the seas has allowed him to provide significant support to his daughter Erin, now 35. Throughout her life, he taught her many traditional skills — to hunt seals in springtime, to collect eider eggs in summertime, to fish for smelt in the wintertime — but she never learned his grudging acceptance of the loss of Inuit culture.

And the generational impacts of colonization never seemed more impactful, or more literal, to Erin Saunders than when she, and various other Inuits opposed to the Muskrat Falls project, were thrown behind bars.

Alex Saunders, 78, at his home in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Photo by Michael G. Seamans/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting