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Battling Big Oil in Alberta

When Jessica Ernst discovered that her community’s drinking water had been contaminated by fracking, she decided to sue energy giant Encana

By Andrew Nikiforuk

Near the end of the summer, Encana invited Rosebud residents to a day of golf and theater. The occasion, the invitation said, would give “Rosebud residents and Encana employees” a chance “to mix, mingle and get to know each other in a relaxing and casual atmosphere.” After a game on the green, the minglers would watch a Rosebud Theatre production of The Village of Idiots. To Ernst, the whole thing sounded like a corporate PR ploy to “come on down, play golf with the devil and shut up.” Another three CBM wells had been drilled north of her property. Given the incessant noise from the drilling and the compressors, Ernst replied to Encana’s invitation tartly.

Photo of Drilling in AlbertaPhoto by Energold-company When Jesicca Ernst realized she could light her drinking water on fire, she began looking into testing the water for methane.

Why, she demanded, did the company want to “mingle and play with me” when it hadn’t yet solved “the compressor noise impacts in my home”? Instead of buying the community theater tickets, she suggested, it would be more useful for the company to spend money “to adequately plan and mitigate the negative cumulative effects of CBM fracking before they happen.” 

By now, Ernst’s water taps ran black bits of coal. The water felt slick to the touch. Ernst often rubbed her thumb and finger together as she washed dishes, wondering, “Why is my water slippery?” Lightly steamed vegetables and boiled pasta seemed to disintegrate. An odd pink bacteria-like slime had also appeared in her toilet.

On September 9, 2005, the compressors woke up Ernst so violently at 4 a.m. that she grabbed the phone. She called Stacy Knull, Encana’s vice president for the region, waking both Knull and his wife. She gave him an earful: you can’t use bad science and fudge data, she said, to repair a noise problem that could have been avoided with proper attenuation in the first place. The two talked about solutions. Ernst suggested moving the compressors. Knull didn’t think that was a good idea. Ernst asked how she could ethically sell her place with so many “shit noisemakers” in the neighborhood. At that point, Knull offered to buy her property: “We will buy your place, so that the …more

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Top Environmental Stories of 2015

Climate change, energy, and wlidlife issues in the forefront

It’s that time again, when we reflect on the year that’s passed and draw up a tally of the best and worst of just about everything. For us at the Journal, the tally is, naturally, about the most important environmental stories, stories that are not necessarily headline-grabbers, but are likely to have long-term impacts on the state of our land, water and air.

This year, we sought the collective wisdom of the greater Earth Island community while drawing up our list. I asked the directors of Earth Island’s diverse range of environmental projects — who work on everything from wildlife conservation, social justice, food and agriculture issues, to climate policy — to send me their thoughts on the key events or developments in the past year.

Keystone potestor arrested in front of WHite HousePhoto by Joe BruskyA Keystone XL protestor being arrested in front of the White House in 2011. President Obama's rejection of the pipeline project is was probably the biggest victory for environmentalists in recent years

Climate change and energy stories dominate the list more than ever before, what with the fall of Keystone XL and the more or less positive outcome of the Paris climate talks. But this year has also seen some key developments in wildlife issues and politics. Without further ado, here’s our crowd-sourced list of the most important stories of 2015.

Obama Rejects Keystone XL

The dismissal of the Keystone XL project was probably the biggest victory in recent years for the green movement that had been fighting the proposed pipeline for seven years. The pipeline — which would have shipped tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico — was opposed by a broad-based, grassroots coalition that included environmentalists, indigenous peoples, students, faith-based and civil rights groups, and labor unions. This mass mobilization provided the environmental movement the fillip it needed to make the struggle over Keystone XL a mainstream, almost symbolic, political issue.

In his November 6 statement rejecting the project, President Obama echoed Keystone opponents’ words when he said that to curb climate change “we’re going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground.”

The newly energized environmental movement is now looking to build on this victory and press for a halt to all new fossil fuel infrastructure.

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Bill to End Dolphin and Whale Captivity Reintroduced In Canada

If passed, legislation would prohibit acquisition and captive breeding of cetaceans

A federal bill to end dolphin and whale captivity throughout Canada was reintroduced by Nova Scotia Senator Wilfred Moore in early December. The bill first made its appearance this past summer, at a time when the conservative Harper government held sway over Parliament. However, with the changing political climate in Canada — namely, the new Trudeau administration — things may be looking up for the whales and dolphins.

Dolphin at Vancouver AquariumPhoto by abdallahh/FlickrA dolphin at Vancouver Aquarium. The Ending of Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act aims to put an end to the display of cetaceans in aquariums throughout Canada.

The Ending of Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act aims to do just that — put an end to the display of cetaceans in aquariums throughout Canada. The act would expand Canada's existing criminal code provisions that prohibit abuse of animals to ban all acquisition and captive breeding of cetaceans. Captures would only be allowed in instances where individuals are injured and need help.

Rob Laidlaw, director of Zoocheck, a nonprofit that protects wildlife in captivity and the wild, says that the bill is long overdue in Canada. “It's been known for quite some time that the majority of Canadians support an end to the incarceration of these long-lived, wide-ranging, deep diving, highly intelligent, extremely social animals for public display purposes.” Zoocheck is one of several organizations supporting this initiative.

The proposed bill follows legislation passed over the summer that makes imports, exports and breeding of orcas illegal in the province of Ontario. And in November, California Representative Adam Schiff introduced a federal bill in the US that aims to phase out orca captivity as well.

Films like Blackfish have focused the public’s attention upon the suffering inherent in cetacean captivity. Yet, many people remain unaware that dolphins and whales are still considered property and are not legally entitled to their own lives. This is why cetacean captivity remains legal in Canada, as well as in other countries around the world.

These bills in Canada and the US represent the beginning of a fundamental reconfiguration of the place of other animals within our legal systems and in our individual mindsets. For decades, we have had more than enough scientific evidence to prove that dolphins and whales, and likely many other species, meet …more

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Obama Will Look for ‘Every Opportunity’ to Push Climate Plans in 2016, Experts Say

The president is likely to focus on the environment in his final year in office, and Congress can do little to stop him

Barack Obama will defend the Paris climate change agreement and forge ahead on his environmental agenda until his final days in the White House, according to analysts. And there is very little Obama’s opponents in Congress can do to stop him — unless they win the elections and install a Republican in the White House in 2017.

Photo of President Obama COP21 Photo by COP PARIS After an epic year in 2015, including the Paris climate agreement in December, Obama is expected to keep pushing his climate agenda in 2016.

Republicans’ initial attempts to derail the Paris agreement fell flat, with Congress failing to deliver on threats to cut off climate aid to developing countries or block the deal.

But Obama still has a fight on his hands — from lawsuits and new resolutions intended to undermine the Paris agreement – during an election year that could give an unusual degree of attention to climate change.

After an epic year in 2015, with the Paris climate agreement in December and the final release of rules cutting carbon emissions from power plants in August, Obama is expected to keep pushing his climate agenda in 2016, racing to roll out new regulations on the oil and gas industry before leaving office.

“My sense is that when it comes to the climate issue, broadly, the president will look for every opportunity to advance his agenda,” said David Sandalow, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, and a former Obama Administration official. “He has been relentless on this issue and with results.”

Before the Paris summit, Republicans in Congress vowed repeatedly to overturn Obama’s plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, moving two resolutions to strike down the rules. As 150 leaders converged on Paris for the start of the global warming negotiations, congressional Republicans threatened repeatedly to undo the agreement in Congress, and to block climate aid Obama had pledged to developing countries.

The US earlier this year committed $3 billion to help developing countries cut carbon emissions and move to cleaner fuels.

The Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz told the Senate science committee there was no evidence climate change was occurring.

But by December 18, when Obama left for his vacation in Hawaii, …more

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Birds in Trouble

Thousands of bird populations and many entire species are hanging on by their wingtips

By Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Paul R. Ehrlich

A visit to the California Academy of Sciences, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, speaks volumes about the disaster that has befallen birds with the spread of humanity. A maze of narrow corridors in the scientific collections leads an explorer to the Ornithological Collection. There you will find a cabinet with a sign: “Extinct Birds.” If you look inside, you’ll experience a dreadful moment as you take in
the sight of specimens of species that no longer exist. Your eyes will move from the imperial woodpecker and the passenger pigeon to the Guadalupe Island petrel, among many others. Each is carefully preserved in death – an ironic twist. We failed to preserve them while they lived, not so very long ago. Dread fades to sadness as your eyes linger on these inert specimens, the last samples of what once were animated creatures. Numbers have a way of numbing the mind, but seeing the remains of so many lost species of birds should touch a nerve and prompt a pledge.

Photo of Spix’s MacawPhoto by Daderot A Spix’s Macaw at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin. The last known free-living individual of Spix’s macaw was seen in Brazil in the year 2000.

America’s conservationist president, Theodore Roosevelt, knew what it meant to lose a species of bird. He once famously stated,

The extermination of the passenger pigeon meant that mankind was just so much poorer; exactly as in the case of the destruction of the cathedral at Rheims. And to lose the chance to see frigate-birds soaring in circles above the storm, or a file of pelicans winging their way homeward across the crimson afterglow of the sunset, or a myriad terns flashing in the bright light of midday as they hover in a shifting maze above the beach – why, the loss is like the loss of a gallery of the masterpieces of the artists of old time.

Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s fears became realities 
all too often as the twentieth century unfolded. Today thousands of bird populations and many entire species hang on by their wingtips. Large portions of our avifauna seem destined to disappear in this century 
if we continue with business as usual, as increasing climate …more

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Man Who Identified Cecil the Lion’s Killer Vows Death Will Not Be in Vain

Zimbabwean activist Johnny Rodrigues says he now has an unprecedented platform to promote conservation

For 35 years, Johnny Rodrigues has been trying to get people to pay attention to conservation issues in Zimbabwe’s Hwange national park, with limited success. Then, in July, a dentist from Minneapolis killed Cecil the lion, the park’s most famous resident, and Rodrigues found himself at the centre of an international media storm.

Cecil the LionPhoto by paulafrenchp Cecil the lion was killed by a trophy hunter in July after being lured out of Hwange National Park.

As the head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), the organization which he founded, Rodrigues was besieged by interview requests as journalists scrambled for information. He would soon play an even more central role in the story, identifying US citizen Walter James Palmer as Cecil’s assailant, and releasing his passport number and address.

“They went hunting at night with a spotlight and they spotted Cecil,” he says. “They tied a dead animal to their vehicle to lure Cecil out of the park and they scented an area about half a kilometer from the park. Mr Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow but this shot didn’t kill him. They tracked him down and found him 40 hours later when they shot him with a gun.”

Palmer became the subject of an online witch-hunt which forced him to go into hiding after numerous death threats. Eventually Zimbabwe said he would not face charges over the killing, because he had obtained the correct permits. Theo Bronkhorst, the professional hunter who facilitated the killing, is facing legal action in Zimbabwe for violating the terms of his hunting permit.

For Rodrigues, the six months since Cecil the lion’s death have given him an unprecedented platform to advocate for the cause that he has made his life’s work. “Cecil didn’t die for no reason. Cecil died for a cause. Things in conservation are going to change in the next few years, and it’s going to make this planet better,” he told the Guardian.

“I was shocked at the response from the world. I’ve lived in a bad dream for 35 years, but people who have had something in the back of their conscience about animals, they have now woken up. Even if it has died off in mainstream …more

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Great Basin Pinyon-Juniper Forests Under Threat

Healthy Nevada forests could be clearcut under proposed BLM project

Standing in a pinyon-juniper forest on a high slope above Cave Valley not far from Ely, Nevada, I am lost in an ancient vision. It is a vision born under sublime skies stretching above wide, flat valleys bounded by the dramatic mountains of the Great Basin. The vision grows with the rising flames of the sun in the east. As the morning passes, the sun shines through pine needles and juniper branches to dapple the forest in silvers and golds. The trees offer shade where patches of snow glimmer with the smallest sounds of melting. Pinyon pine cones are scattered across the ground. As they open, their seeds — nourishing pine nuts — become visible. Beautiful, blue-feathered pinyon jays gather the nuts in their beak before flying off to cache them for the deepening winter. This vision is now threatened by the latest in a series of what the BLM calls  “vegetation treatment projects” that would see the forests clear-cut.

Photo of clear-cut pinyon-juniper forestPhoto by Max Wilbert Clear-cut pinyon-juniper forest that has been “chained” by crawler tractors.

Humans have long participated in the landscape. For thousands of years, in this part of the Great Basin, Shoshones and Goshutes have stood looking out at valleys like this one as they gathered the pine nuts that provided the most important winter food source and made it possible for humans to live in the Great Basin’s harsh climate. As I let my imagination flow into the past, I see hundreds of generations of Shoshones and Goshutes living well off the gifts the land freely offered. Living in this way, I know their relationship with the land could have lasted forever. Pinyon pines could have gone on offering their pine nuts to humans and wildlife alike. Junipers could have gone on twisting in wooden gymnastics and growing their bundles of blue berries.

A herd of cattle catches my attention and I remember that this is just a vision, after all. The presence of cattle, here, forces me to confront the reality of the Great Basin’s ongoing destruction. An anxiety accompanies the cattle. It is the anxiety that flows from the knowledge of ecological collapse.

Following the slow steps of brown and black cows, I see a metallic glint on the valley floor where streamers …more

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