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Canada’s Quest to Mine Bitumen With Steam is Quietly Spelling Disaster

Since 2013 more than 12,000 barrels of steamy bitumen have erupted through fissures in the earth in Alberta

You’ve heard the ads. Beyond the ugly open pit mines lies a different sort of oil sands, intones a friendly Cenovus voice. The difference, goes the ad, consists of some 100 gleaming steam plants in Alberta’s boreal forest where industry can safely recover oil from 450 metres beneath the ground with little impact.

The message is clear: given that 80 per cent of Canada’s bitumen is too deep to be mined, steaming it out of the ground represents a trouble-free Oz, if not a future world of innovative cleanliness.

But it’s all a grand illusion. And you can thank Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., (CNRL) a major bitumen player, for pulling back the curtain.

Alberta Oil Sands Location Tourphoto by EnergyTomorrow, on FlickrA steam mining operation in Fort McMurray, Alberta. This mining process, sometimes called “huff and puff,” forces so much pressurized fluid underground that it lifts the earth by more than a foot.

In the spring of 2013, the company sprouted massive leaks in four locations at their Primrose field in the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. The leaks simply won’t stop, and more than 12,000 barrels of steamy bitumen have since erupted through fissures in the earth as long as 100 meters. 

The uncontrollable event, which has killed many wildlife and forced the partial draining of a 53-hectare lake, now stands as the fourth-largest oil spill in the province’s history. CNRL has spent $40-million to date mopping up the junk crude and hasn’t stopped producing bitumen.

The company’s Cold Lake operation injects highly pressured steam 450 meters into the ground for a month and then pumps like hell from the same wellbore. It is not an earth-friendly operation. This so-called “huff and puff” process forces so much pressurized fluid underground that the operation uplifts the earth by more than a foot. As the frothy bitumen is pumped out, the land then subsides. Satellites can record the heaving and subsiding from space.

All of this movement can play havoc with wellbores. As of 2009, more than one-third of all well-casing failures in the province (more than 1,700) occurred at steam-plant operations in the oil sands.

But continuous steam injection can do more than shear off wellbores. It can also deform a bitumen formation so badly as to “reduce rock strength, induce new …more

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A Troubling Picture

In trying to nab the perfect wildlife picture, photographers may be doing more harm than good

Few of us will ever have the chance to see a penguin, a tiger, or a whale in their natural environment. Yet we all know what these creatures and their wild homes look like thanks to the extraordinary efforts of wildlife photographers, both amateur and professional.

For nearly 150 years – as more and more humans have moved into urban centers and as cameras have become smaller and easier to use –photographers have played a crucial role in maintaining our intimacy with wild nature.

black-and-white photo of a canyon scene, men on horseback to give scalephoto by William Henry JacksonLandscape images captured by photographer William Henry Jackson facilitated the decision to establish the Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
Pictured here: Garden of the Gods near sandstone rock formations identified as Cathedral Spires, Colorado Springs (El Paso County).

Landscape images captured by photographer William Henry Jackson helped spur the decision to establish Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Some credit Carleton Watkins’s photographs of Yosemite Valley for the establishment of the national park there in 1864. A century later, dramatic pictures of birds marred in oil during the Exxon Valdez oil spill sped around the world, illustrating the severity of the environmental catastrophe more effectively than any scholarly article. Today, tiny digital cameras have become an important tool for scientists, allowing them to document countless species on the verge of extinction, sometimes for the very first time.

Yet there’s a fly in the ointment. At times, the quest for the perfect picture, or what might look like a one-time opportunity, can have a serious environmental price tag. The spectacular image doesn’t reveal what went into making it, and sometimes an innocent looking photo could be causing more harm than good.

Last year researchers warned that tourists visiting the Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary in southern India have become a new threat to the gray slender loris – a small, shy primate that lives in the forest there. Visitors wishing to take photos of the cute furry animal have started paying locals to capture it, sometimes using flashlights, scare tactics, or even cutting down trees if that’s what it takes. In the city of Phuket, a tourist magnet in southwest Thailand, Bengal slow lorises hunted by traders serve as models in front of cameras of foreign holidaymakers.

The impact is …more

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That ‘Natural’ Vanilla in Your Ice Cream May Soon Be Coming from a Biotech Lab

Synthetic biology firms’ foray into food and fragrances faces resistance from greens and consumer groups

The first time I ever tasted real vanilla was in a scoop of French vanilla ice cream back in 2000 when I was visiting the United States. The ice cream’s smooth, rich flavor was far superior to the artificial, overly-sweet, “vanilla essence” usually used in ice creams and baked desserts in my home country. I’ve been an ardent fan of real vanilla bean products (extract, paste, and the bean itself) ever since. So last month, when a colleague mentioned that a lab-created, synthetic vanilla product might be hitting the US markets as early as this summer and that it would most likely be passed off as “natural,” I simply had to find out more. Here’s what I learned.

ice cream in a glass cup Photo Wikimedia commonsA Swiss biotech company called Evolva has developed a way to make
vanillin — the chemical compound from which the vanilla bean derives much
of its flavor — in a lab using a genetically rejiggered strain of baker’s yeast.

A Swiss biotech company called Evolva has developed a way to make vanillin — the chemical compound from which the vanilla bean derives much of its flavor — in a lab using a genetically rejiggered strain of baker’s yeast. The technology used to create the yeast is a more advanced form of genetic engineering called synthetic biology, or synbio, which sometimes involves splicing computer-generated DNA into living cells to construct new forms of life (mostly yeasts or algae) from scratch. In Evolva's case, the vanillin is made by taking an ordinary baker's yeast and inserting additional plant genes into its genome. The yeast is then cultured in vats, much like way beer is brewed, to produce the vanillin.

Synthetic biology, which as been around since the 1990s, was originally aimed at producing biofuels that would offer a viable replacement for fossil fuels and chemicals, but despite billions of dollars of investment, the industry is yet to produce a cost-effective fuel or chemical product that can compete with what’s already available. “Now, with investors breathing down their necks, they have begun to venture into flavorings, scents, and cosmetics in order to make profits and they are hoping on a wing and a prayer that the consumers won’t notice," says Jim Thomas of the emerging technologies watchdog organization, ETC Group.

Evolva’s vanillin, which is yet to …more

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Pesticide and GMO Companies Spend Big in Hawai’i

Big Biotech is lobbying state lawmakers in an effort to curb citizens' movement against their activities on the islands

Hawai‘i has become "ground zero" in the controversy over genetically modified (GMO) crops and pesticides. With the seed crop industry (including conventional as well as GMO crops) reaping $146.3 million a year in sales resulting from its activities in Hawai‘i, the out-of-state pesticide and GMO firms SyngentaMonsantoDuPont PioneerDow Chemical, BASF, and Bayer CropScience have brought substantial sums of corporate cash into the state's relatively small political arena.

photoname Photollustration courtesy of the Center for Media and Democracy

Chemical Conglomerates Retaliate Against Local Democratic Control

These "Big 6" pesticide and GMO firms are active on the islands in a big way, making use of the three to four annual growing seasons to develop new GMO seeds more quickly. The development of new GMOs by these pesticide and seed conglomerates goes hand-in-hand with heavy pesticide use in some of the islands' experimental crop fields, new data show. (Read “Trouble in Paradise,” Journal’s in depth report about the situation in Hawaii.)

Kaua'i County — consisting primarily of the island of Kaua'i, known as Hawai‘i's "Garden Isle" and home to Waimea Canyon State Park — passed a law in November 2013 that requires disclosure of pesticide use and GMO crops sewn by growers and created buffer zones around schools, parks, medical facilities, and private residences. The law is set to go into effect in August 2014.

Hawai‘i County banned GMOs altogether in November 2013, and a Maui County initiative to ban GMOs recently obtained enough citizen signatures to be placed on the November 2014 ballot.

what the fork logo

Since experiencing these setbacks, the big agricultural firms have retaliated in a big way.

Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, Agrigenetics (doing business as Dow AgroSciences), and BASF have sued Kaua'i to block its law.

Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, DuPont Pioneer, and several associated trade groups spent over $50,000 lobbying the state legislature from January through April 2014, as legislators considered bills to override the county laws, according to data from the Hawaii State Ethics Commission (as reported through June 6, 2014) analyzed by the Center for Media and Democracy/Progressive Inc. (CMD).

Of these, the Hawai‘i Crop Improvement Association (whose members include Dow AgroScience, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Syngenta, and BASF) had the highest expenditures at $10,800; the powerful national trade association the American Chemistry Council (whose members include BASF, Bayer, Dow, and DuPont) and Syngenta each spent $10,000; and Monsanto …more

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New Report Calls Attention to Untapped Water Savings Within California

State could save up to 13.8 million acre-feet of water a year through water-saving and recycling strategies

By now, most Californians know that we are in a serious drought. We’ve seen the headlines, heard the calls for voluntary (and sometimes mandatory) reductions in water use, and have started to think twice about leaving the water running while brushing our teeth, or taking those long, relaxing showers.

Folsom DamsPhoto by Robert Couse-BakerFolsom Dam, the source of water for about 500,000 Sacramento-area residents, was at just 18 percent of its capacity in January,prompting officials to reduce flows into the American River.

What has been less clear, however, is how California is planning for a drought-resistant future, or whether Sacramento-based policymakers will take advantage of the current heightened water awareness to initiate broad changes in how we think about water in the Golden State. A new report, released yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Pacific Institute, aims to motivate statewide action by calling attention to water-saving methods that lie within arms reach.

By adopting agricultural and urban water saving strategies, as well as increasing stormwater capture and water recycling efforts, California could save anything from 10.8 to 13.8 million acre-feet of water per year, inspiring the report’s title: “The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply.”

 “To give you a sense of how much 11 to 14 million acre-feet is, all of the cities in California combined use less than 10 million acre-feet of water annually today,” explains Kate Poole, a senior water attorney at NRDC and co-author of the report. “Fourteen million acre-feet is also enough water to fill Lake Shasta, which is California’s largest reservoir, more than three times over.”

The agricultural industry is by far the biggest water user in California, using roughly 80 percent of California’s developed water supply, so it makes sense that the greatest water savings elaborated in the report stem from improved efficiencies on California farms. In particular, big savings can be gained by transitioning flood irrigated fields to drip and sprinkler systems; expanding use of irrigation scheduling, which uses local weather and soil information to inform watering; and initiating regulated deficit irrigation, in which certain crops — like wine grapes, almonds, and pistachios — receive less water during drought-tolerant growth stages.

“We find that there is still significant untapped agricultural water use efficiency potential, [even] while maintaining current irrigated acreage and current crop mixes,” says Bob Wilkinson, adjunct associate …more

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Reckitt Benckiser to Scrap Over-the-Counter Rat Poisons, But We Aren’t Celebrating Yet

Two other toxic anticoagulants and several poisons are still available to consumers and the pest control industry

It seemed like cause for celebration at first — the announcement that after six years of stalling, Reckitt Benckiser had finally agreed to comply with the US Environmental Protection Agency’s orders on some of its dangerous d-CON brand consumer rat poisons. But exactly what does this agreement do to help prevent more poisoning of raptors and other wildlife, children and dogs?

two fledgling great horned owls.Photo by Dave HarperFledgling great horned owls. Poisoned rodents can end up killing other animals and raptors that eat them.

Reckitt Benckiser has agreed to phase out production of 12 of the second-generation anticoagulant products it has been selling over-the-counter by December 31, 2014, and to cease distribution by March 31, 2015. That leaves 10 full months for these products to continue poisoning children, pets, and wildlife. They have also agreed not to “stockpile” their product, but who will be checking?

The agreement removes the products Reckitt Benckiser was previously selling in “loose pellet” form that contained several of the worst anticoagulants, a good step in the right direction. However, the EPA has exempted two other dangerous anticoagulants and several other poisons that are still on consumer shelves and being sold by several manufacturers, including Reckitt Benckiser. These products include Chlorophacinone and Diphacinone — both anticoagulants that have killed many birds of prey and other wildlife, and Bromethalin — a nerve toxin for which there is no known antidote and which has killed pets. As I've mentioned in earlier articles, these toxic chemicals cause secondary poisoning when a predator animal consumes a poisoned rodent, or, as has happened with dogs, eats the bait directly.

Diphacinone and Chlorophacinone have killed golden eagles, Canada geese, barn owls, bald eagles, kangaroo rats, bobcats, turkey vultures, coyotes, great horned owls, badgers, foxes, and mountain lions. Some of these products are still being sold in non-tamper proof containers, so children and pets remain at risk.

The effects of Bromethalin on wildlife are not yet well known, although the California Department of Fish & Wildlife has received one fatality report and the labels on Bromethalin state that it is “extremely toxic” to birds and mammals. If a robin in your backyard eats the bait (you can buy Bromethalin in the shape of a worm), you can assume it will die.

Possibly the biggest problem, though, is that the …more

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New Futuristic Nanofoods Sneaking Into Grocery Stores Every Week

Lack of regulation of these potentially dangerous, microscopic ingredients raises concerns about human health

Nanofoods. They may sound like an idea from a sci-fi movie or the wild musings of a mad-scientist, but in reality, nanomaterials — particles on the miniscule scale of atoms and molecules — have already found their way into our food. More likely than not, they are somewhere in your kitchen at this very moment. After all, commonly purchased products such plain yogurt, Hershey’s chocolate bars, Kraft Parmesan cheese, and Silk soymilk all contain nanomaterials, usually to either increase their shelf lives or make them appear more attractive to consumers.

a bowl of yogurt and fruit Photo by Janine/FlickrYour breakfast bowl of yogurt might have some titanium dioxide in it.

Generally defined as particles measuring less than 100 nanometers, these materials exhibit unique properties that differentiate them from their bulky counterparts. Nanoscale titanium dioxide, for example, is used to make milk and yogurt products whiter and brighter than they would appear naturally, increasing appeal to consumers. Nanoscale silica is used to improve “trickle and flow” in powdered food products. And nanosilver is used for its antimicrobial properties, added to anything from baby bottles, to ice trays, to salad bowls.

Currently, there are at least 93 nanofood products being sold in grocery stores throughout the United States, and that number is rapidly rising. According to a recent report by Friends of the Earth (FOE), three to four new nanofoods make their way to grocery store shelves each week. What is more, all of these foods are slipping through regulatory cracks, leaving open questions about their effect on human health and the environment. The FOE report raises concern about “a 10-fold increase in unregulated, unlabeled ‘nanofood’ products on the American market over the past six years.”

“Basically, what is occurring now is with this new wave of knowledge and understanding [about nanotechnology], companies are taking a small piece of this and trying to market products,” says Ian Illuminato, nanotechnology campaign coordinator with Friends of the Earth and author of the report. FOE and several other consumer groups are calling for further research, mandatory disclosure and labeling, and rigorous safety assessments of nanomaterials in food products.

The potential applications of nanotechnology within the food industry are seemingly endless. Additional uses include reduction of fat and caloric content of popular foods like ice cream, development of foods that change color or flavor according to …more

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