Climate Lawsuits Are Coming for Koch Industries

Photo: Sarah Rice (Getty Images)

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced on Wednesday that he’s suing ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute because the three firms deceived customers about the climate crisis. This is the first lawsuit of its kind to name API and Koch Industries, and it takes a novel approach by suing them solely for the lies they told.

The consumer fraud lawsuit alleges that the companies engaged in a multi-decade “campaign of deception,” hiding the fact that they understood as early as the 1950s that oil and gas production contributes to climate breakdown and still chose to extract, market, and sell the fuels. It includes claims for fraud, failure to warn and violations of Minnesota statutes on consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices and false statements in advertising. As retribution, it calls for Minnesotans to be compensated for their losses and for the defendants to fund a public education campaign about the dangers of climate change.

“We’re here suing these defendants, API, ExxonMobil and Koch, for hiding the truth, confusing the facts and muddling the water to devastating effect,” Ellison said at a news conference.

This isn’t the first instance of a locality suing Big Oil firms. There are currently 14 ongoing lawsuits across the U.S. aiming to hold fossil fuel companies and their allies in government liable for climate damages, some of which are also based on knowledge of the multi-decade campaign to distort climate science and mislead the public about the dangers of oil and gas use.

But while other lawsuits have targeted ExxonMobil and other major oil producers, Ellison’s groundbreaking suit targets not just the polluting companies but also fossil fuel lobbyists who also deceived consumers. The multinational Koch Industries’ does produce fossil fuel products—in fact, it owns a large Minnesota refinery that manufactures about 80% of the gasoline used in the state—but it is also heavily involved in lobbying for the fossil fuel industry’s interests. And API is the largest U.S. trade association for oil and natural gas companies. Naming these representatives, rather than just fossil fuel producers themselves, lays out that they had a role in the deception as well.

“This case is historic because it indicates the intention to hold accountable more of the actors that have knowingly fueled the climate crisis,” Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director at Corporate Accountability, told Earther in an email. “For decades, these two entities have been some of the most effective at manipulating policymaking behind closed doors: Koch Industries acting on behalf of its sprawling empire and API on behalf of its fossil fuel members.”

The suit diverges from all other previous ones against Big Oil in another crucial way, too. It’s the first one that hinges only on whether or not the companies deceived the public rather than previous cases focused on defrauding investors, damages caused by climate change, and other issues.

“It is essentially strictly a case about lying,” Richard Wiles, executive director of legal advocacy group Center for Climate Integrity, told Earther. “Literally, the guts of the case are that the defendants perpetrated fraud on the citizens of Minnesota.”

Unlike other suits about this disinformation campaign, to be successful, Ellison would not have to prove that the campaign was responsible for environmental degradation.

“Really all the attorney general has to do is prove that there was in fact a coordinated disinformation campaign,” said Wiles. “They don’t have to prove that anybody acted on the disinformation, they don’t have to prove that the disinformation led to certain impacts or damages, they just have to show that it happened.”

Other climate lawsuits have raised the political questions of who can be held responsible for climate change and who should pay for it. Even some of the 100 companies which are responsible for over 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions have been let off the hook in court, with judges claiming they can’t hold them accountable for a massive, global issue. But the Minnesota suit takes a different approach, and that distinction may make it easier to win.

If the state wins, the suit could lead to significant damages and fines. The suit calls for the companies to “disgorge all profits,” meaning the three defendants would have to give up any money they made as a result of their illegal conduct. It could end up being a large sum of money.

“I don’t even know how they would calculate that, but you could imagine it would include all the profits made from the sales of their products in the state of Minnesota during the time that fraud was perpetrated on the citizens of the state” Wiles said. In other words, they could be forced to forfeit all the money they made off oil and gas in Minnesota since the 1950s.

Minnesota’s lawsuit could also force Exxon, API, and Koch Industries to turn over decades of documents that could provide evidence about their attacks on climate science and deception of the public about the climate crisis. This process of discovery could “give the most in-depth inside look at how these corporations have systematically worked to deceive the public on the truth about climate change,” said Madhusoodanan. Massachusetts’ case against ExxonMobil that went to the Supreme Court last year almost forced the oil giant to do so, though the company ultimately emerged unscathed.

The case also poses serious reputational risks for ExxonMobil, API, and Koch Industries. By undermining their credibility and exposing them as liars, the case could make it harder for them to reasonably demand a role in crafting climate policy.

“You don’t see the opioid industry is at the table when we’re writing a healthcare policy. Big Tobacco’s not at the table when we’re writing healthcare policy,” said Wiles.

Even though it’s well-documented that ExxonAPI, and Koch Industries have spent decades lying to customers and shareholders, this suit likely won’t be a cakewalk. All three defendants have limitless capital to spend to defeat it in the courts. But if Minnesota prevails, it could seriously erode the companies’ moral authority.

“That’s the last thing they want,” said Wiles.

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Drax, Mitsubishi partner on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage project

An engineer looks up at flue gas desulphurization unit at Drax Power Station. The massive pipe above him could transport more than 90% of the carbon dioxide captured with BECCS while power is being generated. Photo courtesy Drax.

Drax Group and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Engineering, Ltd., part of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group (MHI), have agreed to a new bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) pilot project at Drax Power Station which will get underway this autumn.

The pilot will test MHI’s carbon capture technology – marking another step on Drax’s journey towards achieving its world-leading ambition to be a carbon negative company by 2030.

MHI’s 12-month pilot will capture around 300kg of CO2 a day for the purpose of confirming its technology’s suitability for use with biomass flue gases at Drax.

Will Gardiner, Drax Group CEO, said:

“Our plans to develop ground-breaking BECCS at the power station in North Yorkshire will help to boost the UK’s economy following the COVID crisis and support the development of a zero carbon industrial cluster in the Humber region – delivering clean growth and protecting thousands of jobs.

We’re very pleased to be working with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on this exciting pilot which will further our understanding of the potential for deploying BECCS at scale at Drax – taking us closer to achieving our world-leading ambition to be a carbon negative company by 2030.”

Two of MHI’s proprietary solvents will be tested, one of which — KS-1TM Solvent — is already being used at 13 commercial plants delivered by MHI, including Petra Nova in Texas, the world’s largest post combustion carbon capture facility, capturing 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 a year. The other is the newly developed KS-21TM Solvent, designed to achieve significant performance improvements and cost savings.

Kenji Terasawa, president and CEO, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Engineering, said:

“We are very proud to be a part of the BECCS pilot project with Drax. We firmly believe that our carbon capture technology would be able to contribute to the UK’s zero carbon targets in a material way.”

Implementing BECCS at Drax could deliver 16 million tonnes of negative emissions a year – a third of the negative emissions the UK needs from BECCS to reach its zero carbon targets by 2050 and anchor a zero carbon industrial cluster in the Humber region, delivering clean growth whilst protecting 55,000 jobs.

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Drax to trial second CO2 capture system at Yorkshire biomass plant

Four of the six power generating units at Drax in North Yorkshire now run on biomass

Drax is set to test another carbon capture system at its biomass power plant in North Yorkshire, after today announcing plans to begin trialling Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ (MHI) negative emissions technology.

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Norway Warned of Perils of $2.6 Billion Carbon Capture Plan

Bloomberg) — Norway’s plan for a full-scale carbon capture and storage project could end up a financial disaster, according to a new report that includes an increased cost estimate for the venture.

The likely cost of building and operating the project over 10 years — most of which would be funded by the government — could be as much as 25 billion kroner ($2.6 billion), according to an independent report published by the government on Thursday. That’s 8 billion-kroner more than estimated by a previous study, although that only covered five years of operations.

Lawmakers earlier this year pushed the government to prepare the ground for an investment decision this autumn, but the latest report is likely to give some politicians reason to think again. Norway, western Europe’s biggest oil producer, has been reluctant to throw money at costly carbon capture and storage technology after an earlier attempt, dubbed the country’s “moon landing,” failed.

“The measure is considered as costly,” the ministry said in a statement accompanying the report. “There is great uncertainty about the benefits, and the measure could prove to be considerably unprofitable.”

Offshore Storage

The project under consideration involves capturing carbon dioxide from one or two industrial sites in Norway, transporting it on ships and then piping it out to the North Sea for underground storage. For it to be profitable, carbon dioxide emissions would need to cost 10 times as much as they do today, according to the latest report.

The new study, written by Atkins and Oslo Economics, recommends picking only one industrial site, a cement factory in Brevik, south of Oslo, rather than two, in an attempt to reduce costs, it said. That would leave out Fortum Oyj’s waste-to-energy plant in the Norwegian capital.

Norway’s minority government has yet to make a decision, Petroleum and Energy Minister Tina Bru said. It will present its recommendation by October. If parliament gives the plan the green light, the Norwegian state would cover about 80% of the cost while companies including Equinor ASA, Total SA and Royal Dutch Shell Plc, which would run the transport and storage side, would fund the rest.

Norway’s opposition Labor Party, the country’s biggest political group, isn’t deterred by the latest price tag, lawmaker Espen Barth Eide said on Thursday. The pro-oil Progress Party, the government’s preferred partner in parliament, didn’t immediately reply to a call seeking comment.

A series of European industrial companies including Air Liquide SA and ArcelorMittal SA signed non-biding agreements with Equinor in September to join the CCS project at a later stage by providing CO2 to be stored offshore Norway. Even then, the Norwegian government said it would need more international and industrial support to go ahead with the project.

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Alberta’s largest public sector union taking government to court over Bill 1, claiming it violates Charter of Rights and Freedoms

AUPE president Guy Smith. DAVID BLOOM / Postmedia, file

Alberta’s largest public sector union is taking the government to court, claiming that legislation passed to keep protesters away from critical infrastructure goes too far and violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) filed the statement of claim in the Court of Queen’s Bench Tuesday. It says Bill 1, The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, which came into force on June 17, breaches freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association, all rights protected by the charter. The union wants the court to throw out the legislation.

“As we know, peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our democracy, keeps our democracy active, and it should be protected,” he said. “And here you have those folks being turned into criminals and having their life, liberty and justice or security denied them.”

Bill 1 was tabled in February following weeks of cross-country protests supporting Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline in British Columbia including a west Edmonton protest that blocked railway tracks for 12 hours.

Premier Jason Kenney blamed mining giant Teck’s decision to withdraw from its $20-billion Frontier oilsands mine project on “virtual anarchy” and “chaos” stemming from the protests.

The act prohibits individuals from entering, damaging, obstructing, or interfering with “essential infrastructure” and imposes stiff fines or jail time on those who break the rules. The union says what qualifies as essential infrastructure is too broad.

Along with railways, oilsands production sites and other locations, the definition of essential also includes any road, trail or sidewalk.

“So that opens the door to a massive abuse of power,” Smith said.

The union’s case also alleges that imposing jail time for an offence under Bill 1 violates a person’s right to life, liberty and security.

Smith says the legislation, and the ability for the government to add to the definition of essential infrastructure via regulations, means union members could find themselves in trouble for actions like protesting or handing out leaflets in front of their workplace.

In a written statement Tuesday, Jonah Mozeson, press secretary for Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer, said the bill is aimed at those who block key infrastructure such as railways, bridges, pipelines and highways.

“If the union bosses at AUPE are planning on blocking railways, they should let Albertans know,” he said.

Appeals all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada will likely take years.

In the meantime, Smith said that while the union is not holding any mass gatherings right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they will happen again and the union has a legal fund to help anyone who is arrested and charged.

“The union is there for its members and obviously will protect them if something happens as a result of this piece of legislation,” he said.

The union is not the only group to complain about Bill 1. In February the Assembly of First Nations called on Kenney to rescind the bill.

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Alberta government tables legislation that would reverse strict cap on donations to municipal election campaigns

Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu. ED KAISER / Postmedia, file

Residents would be able to donate $5,000 to every municipal election candidate in Alberta under legislation introduced Wednesday that would reverse the stricter contribution cap passed by the previous NDP government.

Individual donations during a municipal campaignare currently capped at $4,000 total that can either be given wholly to one candidate or distributed among several candidates throughout the province. The upcoming 2021 elections would be the first campaign with that cap in place. If passed, Bill 29 would amend the Local Authorities Election Act to revert the donation rule back to what it was during the 2017 local elections. 

“The changes we are seeking to make are about levelling the playing field so that the best candidates for the job, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, are running and winning,” he said. “These changes will allow political newcomers to run more meaningful campaigns. This will help lead to more competitive local elections and increase voter participation.”

Candidates would also be able to self-contribute up to $10,000 and raise $5,000 annually outside the campaign period, up from $2,000. Corporations and unions are still no longer allowed to donate to individual campaigns as introduced in the 2018 reforms.

Disclosing donations publicly would also no longer be required prior to the election so candidates don’t get bogged down with this administrative work while campaigning, Madu said.

It is also being proposed that those who receive funds or spend more than $50,000 would be required to have an accountant review their financial statements before submitting them. Under the current rules, municipalities can pass a bylaw requiring pre-election disclosure statements on the funding raised by all candidates. Transparency isn’t a concern, Madu said, because the same information would be publicly available after the election.

“I want candidates before the election day to focus on campaigning and running and cover as many grounds as possible. After all, that is what campaigns are all about. I don’t want them to be worrying about election day disclosure. All of that can be done post-election,” Madu said.

The proposed reforms also plan to give more power to third-party advertisers by eliminating regulations outside of the election period from May 1 in the election year to the close of the polls in October. Outside of that time, third-party advertisers would be allowed to act as they please, which Madu said is a change to increase their freedom of speech.

“We are protecting the free speech of advocacy groups like unions and corporations and other third parties by allowing them to voice their support for candidates, giving them a political voice they did not previously have,” he said. “I want them to have the freedom, which is a constitutional provision, to be able to focus on the local issues in any municipality that they want to be a part of. I want them to be able to support the candidate that supports the issues that are of importance to them.”

Mayor Don Iveson talks about how Edmonton city council has declared a state of local emergency, granting new powers to administration to restrict movement within the city and fix prices on Friday, March 20, 2020, in Edmonton. (Greg Southam-Postmedia)
Mayor Don Iveson said he was brief by Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu on the proposed amendments. GREG SOUTHAM/Postmedia, file

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the involvement of third-party advertising makes him concerned that the focus of a campaign could be shifted away from local issues. Iveson said he was briefed by Madu Tuesday on what to expect in the proposed amendments and that a number of city council’s suggestions and feedback were included.

“There are still some elements of the conversation around third-party advertising which I need to know more about. I still have real concerns about how that could distort campaigns that ought to be about local issues,” he said at a press conference.“They did listen to us on some of the other more administrative provisions and keeping the partisan angle out and keeping corporate and union money out of the campaigns and so those are positive steps that I do acknowledge.”

Responding to the bill, Opposition NDP municipal affairs critic Joe Ceci condemned the proposed amendments, arguing they would bring “dark money” into politics and reduce transparency for voters.

“This bill means that the rich can buy the council they want,” he said. “I think it is disgraceful.”

If passed, the bill would come into effect on Sept. 1. These changes would also impact school board trustee elections.

duscook@postmedia.com

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Scientists Predict Scorching Temperatures to Last Through Summer

Hotter than normal temperatures are expected across almost all of the United States into September, government researchers said.

Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Following a May that tied for the hottest on record, the United States is heading into a potentially blistering summer, with hotter than normal temperatures expected across almost the entire country into September, government researchers said on Thursday.

Dan Collins, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center, said that for July, August and September across almost the entire United States “the average temperatures are likely to be above normal,” especially in the West and Northeast.

The trends over the last few decades are clear. The most recent figures are in line with a general warming trend: Each decade since the 1960s has been warmer than the one before, and the five hottest years occurred in the second half of the last decade.

High temperatures were likeliest in the Mid-Atlantic states, Northeast and New England, and across much of the West, Rocky Mountains and Southwest. Only a small part of the Midwest, centered around Missouri, has an equal chance of lower-than-normal temperatures, according to an analysis by the Climate Prediction Center.

That warmth will likely mean that drought conditions, currently experienced by nearly one-fourth of the country, will persist through the summer, NOAA scientists said.

Globally, last month was tied with 2016 for the hottest May on record, with average land and sea temperatures that were 0.95 degrees Celsius, or 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit, above the average dating back more than a century.

Areas with the warmest average temperatures included Alaska, the Southwestern United States, the Caribbean, parts of Western Europe and northern Asia.

But May was also cooler than average across much of the Plains and the East Coast, said Karin Gleason, a NOAA climatologist.

It is now virtually certain that globally, 2020 will be one of the five hottest years on record, she said. But it’s less likely that 2020 will eclipse 2016 as the hottest ever. NOAA now estimates there is about a 50 percent chance that 2020 will be a record breaker, down from about 75 percent a month ago.

Gavin A. Schmidt, the director the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, said that the new information is in line with what is known about climate change: “There is a long-term trend in temperatures driven by human activity that is going to lead to more and more records being broken,” he said. “Not every month, not every year — but this will keep happening as long as we continue to emit carbon dioxide.”

Yes, summer has always been the sweltering season. But like all the months of the year, summer months have been getting hotter, a consequence of human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases.

July is the hottest month of all on a global average (even though it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere). July 2019 was the hottest ever, with an average temperature that was 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1 degree Celsius) higher than the 20th century average for the month.

Could last July have been an anomaly, an extreme swing in a variable climate? No — it’s the continuation of a trend. The five hottest Julys have occurred in the last five years, and nine of the 10 hottest have occurred since 2005.

So I’ll swelter during the day. But I’ll get some relief at night, right?

Yes, the air will cool after dark, when the Earth’s surface is no longer absorbing sunlight and giving off heat as a result. But on average you will not get as much relief as you used to because even the nights are warmer now, and they are warming faster than days.

That somehow seems contradictory, doesn’t it? But scientists have offered several explanations.

For a given geographical area or season, changes in nighttime cloud cover may play a role (more clouds trap more heat), as could changes in precipitation or the moisture content of soils.

But there is another explanation that applies globally, involving the boundary layer, the lowest part of the atmosphere that is directly affected by the surface. During the day this layer can be a half-mile thick or more, but at night it becomes much thinner, about 500 feet or less. With a much lower volume of air, the boundary layer at night warms more from the heat trapped by greenhouse gases.

No doubt you appreciate the vibrancy of your city, with its densely packed apartments and houses and its many shops, restaurants, theaters and other cultural venues, all easily accessible through a network of streets.

But to make way for all those buildings and streets, open space was destroyed. Trees and other vegetation disappeared. The few remaining vacant lots were gradually paved over to become parking lots.

And those buildings and streets absorb more of the sun’s energy and radiate more heat than open spaces do. Densely packed, they also can block cooling winds. The trees and shrubs that disappeared? They used to provide shade and a cooling effect through evapotranspiration. All of that, plus the waste heat that results from transportation, industry and cooling, because engines and other energy-consuming equipment are not completely efficient, makes cities hotter.

Even within a city, research shows that temperatures on a hot summer day can vary as much as 20 degrees across different areas, with poor or minority neighborhoods often bearing the brunt of that heat.

All those structures and streets can make the effect worse at night as well. Think of them like a battery that’s being charged up all day, absorbing energy in the form of sunlight and heating up. At night this “battery” slowly discharges, releasing its heat, keeping the city even warmer than surrounding areas.

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Henry Fountain specializes in the science of climate change and its impacts. He has been writing about science for The Times for more than 20 years and has traveled to the Arctic and Antarctica. @henryfountain  Facebook

John Schwartz is a reporter on the climate desk. In nearly two decades at The Times, he has also covered science, law and technology. @jswatz  Facebook

Climate emission killer: construction begins on world’s biggest liquid air battery

Exclusive: project will store renewable energy and reduce climate-heating emissions

Highview Power’s Pilsworth liquid air energy storage plant in Greater Manchester has received a £10m grant from the UK government. Photograph: Highview Power

Construction is beginning on the world’s largest liquid air battery, which will store renewable electricity and reduce carbon emissions from fossil-fuel power plants.

The project near Manchester, UK, will use spare green energy to compress air into a liquid and store it. When demand is higher, the liquid air is released back into a gas, powering a turbine that puts the green energy back into the grid.

A big expansion of wind and solar energy is vital to tackle the climate emergency but they are not always available. Storage is therefore key and the new project will be the largest in the world outside of pumped hydro schemes, which require a mountain reservoir to store water.

The new liquid air battery, being developed by Highview Power, is due to be operational in 2022 and will be able to power up to 200,000 homes for five hours, and store power for many weeks. Chemical batteries are also needed for the transition to a zero-carbon world and are plummeting in price, but can only store relatively small amounts of electricity for short periods.

Liquid air batteries can be constructed anywhere, said Highview’s chief executive, Javier Cavada: “Air is everywhere in the world. The main competitor is really not other storage technologies but fossil fuels, as people still want to continue building gas and coal-fired plants today, strangely enough,” he said.

The UK government has supported the project with a £10m grant. The energy and clean growth minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, said: “This revolutionary new facility will form a key part of our push towards net zero, bringing greater flexibility to Britain’s electricity grid and creating green-collar jobs in Greater Manchester.

“Projects like these will help us realise the full value of our world-class renewables, ensuring homes and businesses can still be powered by green energy, even when the sun is not shining and the wind not blowing,” he said.

Alex Buckman, an energy storage expert at the Energy Systems Catapult group, said polluting gas power plants were the main way the UK electricity grid was balanced. But a net zero carbon system would need more than the 30% renewable energy of today and therefore more storage.

“There is likely going to be a need for one or more of the medium-to-long duration electricity storage technologies to fill a gap in the market, and liquid air energy storage (LAES) is right up there as an option,” he said. Pumped hydro is limited by the need for a mountain reservoir, while gravity storage – where you raise a weight and then let it drop to power a generator – is less developed, as is large-scale production of hydrogen fuel from green energy.

“The combination of being more developed and more scalable provides LAES with an opportunity to be competitive, if they can prove that they can reduce costs with increased scale,” Buckman said.

The Highview battery will store 250MWh of energy, almost double the amount stored by the biggest chemical battery, built by Tesla in South Australia. The new project is sited at the Trafford Energy Park, also home to the Carrington gas-powered energy plant and a closed coal power station.

Highview is developing other sites in the UK, continental Europe and the US, including in Vermont, but the Manchester project will be the first. “The first one is definitely the most important and this is why we really value the UK government’s bold move to use UK technology to solve UK problems and afterwards export the tech globally,” said Cavada.

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US demand for clean energy destroying Canada’s environment, indigenous peoples say

Push is inadvertently causing long-term environmental damage to the traditional hunting grounds on Inuit public lands

Hamilton inlet in Rigolet, Labrador, Canada. ‘The methylmercury is going to come down the river and into our food chain and the fish and the seals won’t be fit to eat.’ Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

In a subarctic fjard estuary just a few miles from frozen tundra, Inuit hunter Karl Michelin says he owes his life to the thousands of barking ringed seals that congregate year-round in local waters.

The seals’ jet-black, heavily fatted meat is a staple for Michelin, his wife, and their toddler. With food insecurity rampant among the region’s Inuit, neighbors are similarly dependent on seals and other wild-caught food. The town’s isolation makes regular employment opportunities scarce, and food prohibitively expensive to import.

But Michelin says his ability to harvest seals is facing a threat from an unexpected quarter: America’s hunger for cheap and renewable electricity.

“In order for you to get that kind of power,” he said, “we have to sacrifice our way of life in a lot of ways.”

Canada’s indigenous leaders say an unprecedented push for clean energy in the United States is inadvertently causing long-term environmental damage to the traditional hunting grounds on their public lands.

Rigolet lies downstream of Muskrat Falls, a $12.7bn dam on the Churchill River, a key drainage point for Labrador’s biggest watershed. Nalcor, the state-owned company that completed Muskrat Falls last year, is already planning Gull Island, another Churchill dam that would produce three times as much electricity, mostly for export to the US.

The Nunatsiavut government, which governs 2,700 Inuit in the area, says those dams will disrupt the hydrologic cycle underpinning the ecosystem, and increase exposure to a toxin associated with dam reservoirs.

When land is flooded, naturally occurring mercury is unlocked from the soil and vegetation and released into the water column, where it is taken up by bacteria and transformed into methylmercury, a neurotoxin that makes its way up the food chain and bioaccumulates in fish, waterbirds and seals.

Those species are critical to the sustainable lifestyle practiced by the Inuit.

“When they poison the water, they poison us,” said conservation officer, David Wolfrey, who ensures that Rigolet’s 310 residents observe hunting and fishing limits on fish, caribou, moose and polar bear.

 The Inuit of Labrador already have higher concentrations of methylmercury in their bodies than non-indigenous Canadians, but there is sharp disagreement over the extent to which large dams are further elevating those levels. Photograph: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

 

The Nunatsiavut’s issues are common among Canada’s First Nations – a 2016 survey of 22 planned future hydropower projects in Canada found that all 22 were within 60 miles of at least one indigenous community.

The Inuit of Labrador already have higher concentrations of methylmercury in their bodies than non-indigenous Canadians, but there is sharp disagreement over the extent to which large dams are further elevating those levels, with each side citing conflicting research.

“The methylmercury is going to come down the river and into our food chain and the fish and the seals won’t be fit to eat,” said Wolfrey. “My grandchildren, they’re not going to be able to live the life that I lived, and my grandparents lived.”

Over the past four years, a slew of US states have unveiled ambitious renewable energy goals: Maine has mandated 80% renewable energy production in Maine, 90% in Vermont, and 100% in Minnesota, California, New York, Washington and Rhode Island. Because those states lack a clear path to meet these goals through local generation, lawmakers are eyeing the reserves of renewable power across the northern border.

Though it has just 37 million people, Canada lags only China among the world’s hydropower superpowers, according to WaterPower Canada, an industry association. With 900 large-scale dams, big hydro already supplies 60% of Canada’s domestic needs.

In the coming years, the industry sees $100bn in expected investments and a potential tripling of output, largely by damming the nation’s last remaining wild rivers.

Potential markets include New York City, where Mayor Bill De Blasio is aggressively pursuing a $3bn transmission line, and Maine, which is considering a $950m transmission line that cuts across its storied north woods.

Supporters say this infrastructure is needed to combat climate change. But while hydropower is certainly renewable, experts such as the US Environmental Protection Agency do not consider it “green”. Opponents point to the energy costs of construction, and the impact of the methane and carbon released by vegetation that rots in flooded reservoirs.

The debate is being played out in Maine, where a citizen referendum challenging the proposed transmission line will be on the ballot this November.

Sean Mahoney, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine advocacy center, acknowledges that large scale hydro is flawed, but said it’s the best readily available opportunity.

“Look at the project, look at what it does, as far as making an impact on the climate crisis,” said Mahoney. “Hydropower is, by the most conservative estimate, 70% of the emissions of the natural gas it will replace. That is an impact of scale and if we’re really serious about the climate crisis, we have to look at the project that delivers at that scale.”

But Dylan Voorhees, clean energy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said importing large-scale hydro is a poor solution to meeting local renewable energy goals.

“The question is, should we put our time and energy into that, or into developing renewable energy projects in Maine and New England where we get more economic benefits from it?”

Both Mahoney and Voorhees agreed that the Canadian hydropower industry’s patchy relationship with First Nations groups will impact American enthusiasm for imports.

That fact, and concerns expressed by groups like the United Nations and Amnesty International, have the hydropower industry looking for ways to make their projects more palatable to both local indigenous groups, and the international community.

In recent years, Nalcor and other dam-builders have aggressively courted support from local aboriginal populations – in addition to staffing internal indigenous relations departments, their projects now typically include agreements to fund local community initiatives and, in some cases, full partnerships that have resulted in lucrative payouts to the affected communities.

But those efforts are unlikely to convince Inuit like Alex Saunders, 78, of Labrador’s Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Saunders has been treated for methylmercury poisoning he associates with his heavy dependence on ocean fish and local wildlife. Saunders wishes Americans wouldn’t support large scale hydropower.

“Think about what you’re buying here,” he said. “You’re buying the misery from the local people of northern Canada. That’s not a good thing.”

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How did wildlife groups start collaborating in the destruction of nature?

We need strong campaigns to confront environmental collapse. Instead, we get weakness and complicity

‘The ‘net gain’ principle has been used repeatedly as an excuse to destroy precious wild places, replacing them with uniform saplings in plastic guards.’ Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Out of this horror comes hope. In the backwash of the pandemic’s first wave, we see the shingled ruins of the old economy, and the chance to construct a new one. As we rebuild our economic life, we should do it on green principles, averting a crisis many times greater than the coronavirus: climate breakdown and the collapse of our life-support systems.

This means no more fossil fuel-based infrastructure. Even existing infrastructure, according to climate scientists, could push us past crucial thresholds. It means an end to megaprojects whose main purpose is enriching construction companies.

Perhaps the definitive example of such projects in the UK is the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. It’s a plan to build a conurbation of 1 million homes – twice the size of Birmingham – from Oxford to Cambridge. This is far beyond the region’s housing demand. Its purpose, government agencies admit, is not to meet the need for homes, but “to maximise [the area’s] economic potential”.

Originally, the Arc was to be built around an expressway: a new motorway linking the two cities. After a furious public backlash, the expressway, according to Highways England (the government agency promoting the project), is now “paused” while it explores “other potential road projects”. In either case, there would be a massive expansion of the road network and the traffic it carries, though air pollution in the region already breaks legal limits. The new housing would mean a huge increase in water use. Already rivers in this area run dry every year, as demand exceeds supply.

Even before the pandemic struck, this megalomaniac scheme was in trouble due to the strength of public opposition. The pandemic, some of us assumed, would be the death blow. Why would the government spend money on this grandiose nonsense when there are so many other priorities?

But last week, a new campaign came to the rescue. It has rebranded the project “Nature’s Arc”. Apparently, with some adjustments, this massive exercise in concrete pouring “could show how development can restore nature, rather than destroy it”. Building up to a million homes, the new PR blitz tells us, is “the perfect opportunity to invest in nature, improve people’s lives and realise the green recovery.” There’s no mention of traffic, no mention of the Arc’s contribution to air pollution, climate breakdown, resource consumption or water use. It’s suffused with the kind of corporate-Maoist exhortations you see in brochures for new estates: “Nature’s Arc: be part of it”.

It’s one of the most outrageous exercises in greenwashing I’ve ever seen. But I haven’t told you the worst of it. This guff was not published by the government or the housebuilding companies. It was published by a consortium of wildlife groups: the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the region’s two wildlife trusts. All of them once fought the Arc and its associated developments. The Wildlife Trusts once mounted a legal challenge to the expressway. This looks to me like a switch from opposition to collaboration.

There’s a remarkable, distressing similarity between the wildlife groups’ campaign and Highways England’s own PR materials. The groups use the same dismal, instrumental language. They call nature “natural capital”. They rebrand nature reserves and woodlands as “green infrastructure”. They uncritically deploy one of the most controversial concepts in development planning: “net gain”. This is the principle that established wildlife habitats destroyed by a project should be replaced by a greater area of new habitat. It has been used repeatedly as an excuse to destroy ancient and precious wild places, replacing them with uniform saplings in plastic guards. Government newspeak appears to have framed their language and shaped their thinking.

Both the wildlife trusts in this consortium, in response to my questions, tell me they have applied for funds from Highways England for other projects. The boundaries blur and the objectives mesh, until it seems hard to tell the difference between protectors and destroyers. But I don’t think this is about money. I think it’s about power.

The four groups all tell me that, despite the statements in their press materials, they still oppose the housing target. They say they want to lay down green principles for construction in the Arc and ensure it “respects environmental limits”. But by rebranding the Arc as the potential saviour of nature, I believe they are playing straight into the government’s hands.

To make matters worse, people in local campaign groups who have been leading the fight against the Oxford-Cambridge Arc say they were not consulted. Deborah Lovatt of the Buckinghamshire Expressway Action Group tells me she had no idea Nature’s Arc was coming. “When I saw that they were describing this scale of destruction as ‘a perfect opportunity’, I felt sick.” They have “completely undermined community campaigns”, she says. This is ironic, as one of the many complaints against the government’s proposal is the lack of public consultation.

The bigger and more established an organisation becomes the more timid and conformist it seems to get, until it’s almost indistinguishable from the interests it should be confronting. In this age of environmental crisis and collapse, of government lies and corporate power, we need our nature defenders to rise like lions after slumber. Instead, they queue at the abattoir gate like sedated lambs.

As commercial propaganda seeps into every corner of public life, trust collapses. No one knows what or whom to believe. We need campaigning groups that stand on principle, mobilise their members, use their own words and think their own thoughts. Instead, they swing in the winds of power.

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George MonbiotGeorge Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

We must not miss this glorious chance to address the climate and biodiversity crises

If the government plots a green recovery from coronavirus, the benefits are endless. If it doesn’t, we’re screwed

The UK Department for Transport has announced plans for 2,500 electric charging points along motorways and A-roads by 2030.’ Photograph: Christopher May/Alamy Stock Photo

Trillions of dollars will be invested by governments in reviving their economies over the next two or three years. If those dollars are well spent, ensuringlow-carbon, nature-restoring prosperity, we have a real chance of avoiding runaway climate change and ecosystem collapse. If they’re spent on taking us back to pre-coronavirus days, we’re screwed. The climate’s screwed. The planet’s screwed. And all future generations are screwed. It’s as simple – and as binary – as that.

This year was meant to be the year of major breakthroughs in addressing the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis. It will be neither. It will live in the minds of most people as the Year of Covid-19. And rightly so. But those twin emergencies of climate and collapsing ecosystems haven’t gone away while we’ve been straining humankind’s every sinew to mitigate the impacts of the deadliest public health threat in 100 years.

Yet what made the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis so urgent before Covid-19 guarantees that they will be even more daunting and even more disruptive at the end of this traumatic year – with a whole 12 months lost in terms of political engagement and leadership.

Ignore all the over-excited coverage there will no doubt be at the end of this year celebrating a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 10%, towns and cities temporarily purged of the horror of toxic air quality (killing far more people, by the way, every year, than Covid-19 will), and nature back in our lives through the magic of birdsong and wild creatures returning to our denatured urban landscapes. Look on all that as a short-lived respite, a beautiful but evanescent manifestation of how things could be, for citizens the world over. All those silver linings will rapidly disappear unless we start doing things very differently.

A mighty choir of voices (from Prince Charles and Greenpeace to countless multinationals and academics) are now singing from the rooftops to remind our politicians that we have a glorious opportunity to bring forward lasting improvements that would have been unimaginable even six months ago. Their mandate now is crystal clear: restore purchasing power; create new jobs; prioritise the least well-off – and do all of that in ways that simultaneously make it possible for us to deliver climate stability and a thriving planet.

So is there any indication that the UK government is thinking in those terms? The short answer is “possibly”. Beyond the standard waffle from the prime minister (“We owe it to future generations to ‘build back better’ and base our recovery on solid foundations, including a fairer, greener and more resilient global economy”), there have been much stronger declarations of intent from both the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury, with specific talk of a “green industrial revolution” to create tens of thousands of new jobs.

Even the Department for Transport has been getting in on the act, announcing plans for 2,500 electric charging points along motorways and A-roads by 2030, as well as a £250m active travel fund to support the development of pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements and cycle- and bus-only corridors – a down-payment, apparently, on a much bigger programme under consideration.

But all this is very small beer indeed compared with the plans of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to spend up to £27bn over the next five years to expand Britain’s road network – locking us into decades of carbon-intensive car dependency at precisely the time when every company in the country is developing post-coronavirus work and travel planning, specifically to reduce car use and commuting, doubling down on more flexible, tech-enabled ways of working.

So just flip it, Rishi! Transport is the UK’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Hang on to that scale of ambition by making the £27bn available to our cities and towns to invest in cycle lanes, better pedestrian facilities and improved public transport – as cities such as Bristol and London are already starting to do. This will deliver jobs at the local level (especially in many of our northern cities, which one assumes Boris Johnson hasn’t yet entirely forgotten about), cleaner air and improved health (reducing the burden on the NHS) and potentially massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions over the next 10 years.

Similar, massive benefits are available if the government chooses to invest in a nationwide housing retrofit programme, a pre-existing commitment that has come and gone on several occasions, simply because no previous government ever put its money where its cynically gabby mouth was. As the Green New Deal group has shown, as well as the government’s own Infrastructure Commission, an ambitious retrofit programme means jobs in every constituency (many of them available to young people staring out on a blighted, jobless post-coronavirus world), a huge uptake in construction skills and trades, a rapid reduction in the kind of fuel poverty that has blighted the lives of tens of millions of people (simultaneously costing the NHS billions every year), with significant reductions in greenhouse gas emission by the end of the decade.

Once the Treasury opens its mind to the potential of a far-reaching Green New Deal, we should also be borrowing unashamedly from President Roosevelt’s original New Deal back in the 1930s by creating a 21st-century equivalent of his Conservation Corps to help restore this nation’s desperately degraded environment. It’s only six months since the major political parties were trying to out-green each other by committing to massive tree-planting programmes in their election manifestos. Since then, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has pretty much sat on its hands.

Nothing is ever quite as “shovel-ready” as advocates would have us believe, but local transport solutions, housing retrofits and nature-climate solutions could all be brought forward, at speed and at scale, in ways that would be hugely popular with citizens across the country. There is now not one good reason why this government shouldn’t soon be announcing one of the most ambitious rescue packages anywhere in the world.

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Jonathon Porritt is an environmentalist and author. His latest book is Hope in Hell: A Decade to Confront the Climate Emergency (£16.99, Simon & Schuster)

‘Tipping point’: Greta Thunberg hails Black Lives Matter protests

People are realising ‘we cannot keep looking away from these things’, says climate activist

Greta Thunberg has said the Black Lives Matter protests show society has reached a tipping point where injustice can no longer be ignored, but that she believes a “green recovery plan” from the coronavirus pandemic will not be enough to solve the climate crisis.

Reflecting on the protests that have swept the globe in recent weeks, the Swedish climate activist told the BBC: “It feels like we have passed some kind of social tipping point where people are starting to realise that we cannot keep looking away from these things. We cannot keep sweeping these things under the carpet, these injustices.

“People are starting to find their voice, to sort of understand that they can actually have an impact.”

The coronavirus pandemic had given her hope by showing those in power are able to act when faced with an emergency, but the climate crisis needed to be treated with the same urgency, she said.

“It shows that in a crisis, you act, and you act with necessary force,” she said. “Suddenly people in power are saying they will do whatever it takes since you cannot put a price on human life.

“The main message that underlines everything we [as climate activists] do is, ‘Listen to the science, listen to the experts’, and all of a sudden you hear everyone everywhere is saying that. It feels like the corona crisis has changed the role of science in our society.”

The 17-year-old has been using her time in lockdown to study, despite taking a sabbatical year from school to travel and campaign on the climate crisis. She sailed across the Atlantic last year to attend UN climate summits, eventually ending up in Madrid to address talks originally to have been hosted in Chile.

“I thought I’m just home anyway, so I might as well just jump in the class … in my free time, as a bonus. It doesn’t really count, but I love studying so much,” she said. “I’m really the last one to complain because I haven’t been that affected by this.”

She has also used her time to produce a radio programme, Humanity has not yet failed, reflecting on some of her experiences and meetings over the last year and looking at some of the challenges the world faces in tackling the environmental crisis.

“The climate and ecological crisis cannot be solved within today’s political and economic systems,” she said. “That isn’t an opinion. That’s a fact.”

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