Sustainability: What’s that supposed to mean?

The Importance of Water

Humankind is entirely dependent on water, including for energy. “Water and energy are strongly interlinked: water is required to produce, transport and use all forms of energy to some degree” (UNESCO, 2014, p.12).

Created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the World Water Development Report (WWDR) ranked Canada among the richest countries in the world for water (UNESCO, 2014). However, this allows for an energy policy that further permits the production of Canadian oil-sands in Alberta, resulting in large amounts of carbon emissions and water use, a policy of which is unsustainable. See the video below for a short explanation of the Alberta oil sands production process.

Sustainability

According to Environment Canada (2014), sustainability is “about improving the standard of living by protecting human health, conserving the environment, using resources efficiently…It requires the integration of environmental, economic and social priorities into policies and programs and requires action at all levels – citizens, industry, and governments.” It follows that “using resources efficiently” and “action” from citizens are important parts of energy policy development. If this is what is meant by sustainability, though, I have problems understanding the relevance of its emphasis throughout Government documents.

The democratic process ceases to exist at the policy level, for example, in Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) sees SEA as a method to evaluate Canadian Energy Policies (CEAA, 2014). According to the CEAA (2014), there are no SEAs that exist at this time nor have there ever been any, regarding Canada’s energy policy. This is not sustainable, since incorporating citizen action at the policy level, according to Environment Canada’s own definition of sustainable, is virtually non-existent.

Oil-sands development has some of the most adverse effects. According to David Harvey of the University of Toronto: “Tar sands oil entails 5-60% more greenhouse gas emissions on a life-cycle basis than conventional oil” (ForestEthics, 2013, p.6).

According to the Canadian Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP), in 2012, the Alberta oil-sands operations alone produced 50,285,958.95 tons/CO2eq. Comparatively, the entire province of Quebec produced 17,765,573 tons/CO2eq for the same year. Furthermore, in Canada, it takes about 7-10 M3 of water to produce 1 M3 of Bitumen, the raw oil-sand from Alberta that still requires further processing into crude oil, which itself requires more energy (NRCAN, 2014). This is not sustainable, since it takes about 7-10 times the amount of water to produce 1 unit (barrel, gallon, litre, etc.) of oil. This is not using resources efficiently.

Even a Life-Cycle Assessment shows treatment disparity between conventional energy (fossil fuels), nuclear and renewables (Ecolateral, 2014).

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 3.44.44 PM

Sustainability is more like “sustainability”. It is clear that Canadian energy policies do not live up to Canada’s own definition of sustainability, not only by erosion of the democratic process but also by way of one of the most inefficient uses of one of the most precious resources in the world: water, on which all of humankind depends. This is compounded by the exponentially increasing amount of carbon entering the atmosphere every day, the air you and I breath. In any sense of the definition, how does this sound sustainable and in light of these facts, how can we truly believe that our Government is handling our resources in the most sustainable fashion?

For more information on the current politics of fossil-fuel development, please visit:

http://www.greenworldrising.org/#!ep2-carbon/clzn

References

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. 2014. The Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals. Accessed on January 8th, 2014. Available from: https://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/default.asp?lang=En&n=B3186435-1

Environment Canada, 2014. Facility GHG emissions by province/territory.

Accessed on January 7th, 2014. Available from: http://www.ec.gc.ca/ges-ghg/donnees-data/index.cfm?do=province&lang=En&year=2012.

Environment Canada, 2014. Sustainable Development. Accessed on January 7th, 2014. Available from: http://www.ec.gc.ca/dd-sd/

ForestEthics Advocacy, 2013. Who writes the rules? A Report on Oil Industry Influence, Government Laws, and the corrosion of Public Process.

Natural Resources Canada, 2014. Accessed on January 7th, 2014. Available from: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/oil-sands/water-management/5865.

Oil Sands Information Portal, 2014. Accessed on January 7th, 2014. Available from: http://osip.alberta.ca/library/Dataset/Details/443.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2014. The United Nations World Water Development Report: Water and Energy. (1).

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Sacrificing the Environment: Effects of the Canadian Environment Assessment Act 2012 on The Enbridge Pipeline 9B Reversal

By Wills Tobin,

Formerly, Enbridge pipeline 9B sent oil from Montreal, Quebec to Sarnia, Ontario. An approval on March 6, 2014 has allowed Enbridge Pipelines to reverse oil direction and capacity towards Montreal, QC. The National Energy Board’s approval is a fundamental example of the extent to which EIA processes in Canada have eroded because of the Bill C-38 adoption in June 2012. More insight on this:

In bill C-38, The Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA 2012) changed drastically. The Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC) facilitated changes in the act through lobbying representatives and members of Government (Forest Ethics, 2013). The EPIC mandate is to “…provide the foundations…for energy and environmental policy”(Forest Ethics, 2013, p. 1). As the conservative Government argued that the CEAA 2012 amendment was simply to streamline and reduce duplication, the effects of legislation have been negatively influential on the line 9B project (EPIC, 2012).

Scoping Line 9B

Due to the CEAA 2012, in the Line 9B reversal, The NEB (National Energy Board) stated that it would not consider environmental or socio-economic effects not directly associated with the reversal of the pipeline (Forest Ethics, 2013; David Suzuki Foundation, 2012; Gage, 2012). This has had a negative effect on the scope of the project. Scoping is critical because its purpose is to identify scientific and public core values so indirect and cumulative impacts are not over-looked, especially when it comes to major oil and gas infrastructure, which should always require comprehensive studies (Noble, 2010).

Monitoring Line 9B

According to Forest Ethics (2013), “once a decision is made for a given project, the NEB will not revoke permits, even if subsequent analyses show adverse environmental effects (p. 7).” The NEB also stated that monitoring should only have to be done at the beginning of the EIA process and not require continued follow-ups (NEB, 2013). The pipeline is 38 years old and it is worrisome that it may rupture if its carrying capacity is increased. There is a fear about pre- and post-, consistent monitoring, as knowledge of bitumen effects on the environment is limited and therefore less capable of being mitigated (CTV News, 2014). See video for more details:

Public Participation Line 9B

Most importantly, public participation now only includes people “directly effected”. (David Suzuki Foundation 2012; Gage 2012; Forest Ethics, 2013) As a result, compared to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project (11,111 public participants), Enbridge line 9B only had 172 participants (Forest Ethics, 2013). This legislation has meant the loss of democracy in Canadian EIA. This is most important because participant input as to what is important in EIA has formerly always been taken into consideration. Keep in mind that what constitutes an impact or effect is frequently defined by social value. This diminution of public participation also defeats the purpose of important cornerstones in the development of EIA in Canada, like the signing of the Rio Declaration in 1992, the UN global environmental assessment agreement (UNEP, 1992). The effects of the CEAA 2012 have had repercussions that need to be noticed and hopefully acted upon very soon.

References

Canadian Environmental Law Association. (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.cela.ca/blog/2013-08-13/ontario’s-greenhouse-gas-reduction-program-–-carbon-tax.

CBC News. (2014). Enbridge Line 9 pipeline reversal approved by energy board. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/enbridge-line-9-pipeline-reversal-approved-by-energy-board-1.2562169

CTV News. (2014). Leonardo DiCaprio visits Alberta oilsands to research documentary. Retrieved from://www.ctvnews.ca/entertainment/leonardo-dicaprio-visits-alberta-oilsands-to-research-documentary-1.1971656.

David Suzuki Foundation. (2012). Bill C-38: What you need to know. Retrieved from: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/downloads/2012/C-38%20factsheet.pdf

Energy Policy Institute of Canada. (2012). A Canadian Energy Strategy Framework: A guide to building Canada’s future as a global energy leader. Retrieved from: http://www.canadasenergy.ca/canadian-energy-strategy/

Environment Canada. (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.ec.gc.ca/ges-ghg/donnees-data/index.cfm?do=province&lang=En&year=2012.

ForestEthics Advocacy. (2013). Who writes the rules? A Report on Oil Industry Influence, Government Laws, and the corrosion of Public Process.

Gage, A. (2012). Who is silenced under Canada’s new environmental assessment law? West Coast Environmental Law. Retrieved from: wcel.org/resources/environmental-law-alert/who-silenced-under-canada’s-new-environmental-assessment-act

Green World Rising. (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.greenworldrising.org/#!ep2-carbon/clzn

Line 9: It’s coming for you. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_z0sc-rSB1s

National Energy Board. (2013). Hearing Order OH-002-2013. https://docs.neb-one.gc.ca/lleng/llisapi.dll/fetch 2000/90464/90552/92263/790736/890819/918701/918444/A3%2D1_%2D_Hearing_Order_OH%2D002%2D2013_%2D_A3F4W7.pdf?

nodeid=918357&vernum=-2.

Natural Resources Canada. (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/oil-sands/water-management/5865.

Oil Sands Information Portal, (2014). Retrieved from: http://osip.alberta.ca/library/Dataset/Details/443.

Opposing Enbridge’s Line 9. (2014). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfHl-N1qxY8.

Stewart, K. (2014). Approval of Enbridge Line 9 good for oil companies, not communities: Greenpeace. Toronto. Retrieved from:http://www.greenpeace.org/canada/Global/canada/pr/2014/03/NEBLine9Ruling.pdf

UNEP. (1992). Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Retrieved From: https://www.unep.com/

EIA reform in California: a LOS’t opportunity

by Dana Feingold

When a bill was introduced earlier this year in California lauded as the “CEQA Modernization Act of 2013,” smart growth and sustainable transportation advocates were cautiously optimistic about a reform bill that could align the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)more closely with statewide climate change and sustainable community goals (Lawson et al 2013).  The bill, SB 731, proposed changes in traffic analysis that would facilitate infill development and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by moving away from the antiquated traffic flow metric of level of service (LOS) in favor of a more holistic approach that would consider air quality, noise, safety, and overall mobility (Newton 2013).  Unfortunately, SB-731  was abruptly withdrawn in early September.

Shortly after the United States Federal Government enacted the National Environmental Priority Act in 1970, the state of California instituted the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.  CEQA aims to “regulate such activities [which are found to affect the quality of the environment] so that major consideration is given to preventing environmental damage,” and to “take all action necessary to protect, rehabilitate, and enhance the environmental quality of the state” (California Public Resources Code, 2012).  However, in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that one key aspect of the Act no longer helps to achieve those goals.  SB 731 aimed to address this issue: traffic level of service analysis.

In environmental impact assessment, significant traffic impacts are often identified based on level of service, or LOS.  According to the US Transportation Research Board’s Highway Capacity Manual, a standard reference for transportation planners and engineers, LOS is a qualitative measurement that describes operational conditions within a traffic stream in terms of “speed and travel time, freedom to maneuver, traffic interruptions, and comfort and convenience” (National Research Council, 2000).  LOS standards use letters A through F to identify different categories of traffic flow, as illustrated in the above image.  The manual goes on to explain that “safety is not included in the measures that establish service levels” (ibid).  Despite this glaring shortfall, LOS is the standard of choice for defining traffic impacts under CEQA in California.

Level of Service

Image source: Safe Routes to School in California <http://saferoutescalifornia.org/2012/06/25/goodbye-to-los/&gt;

When using LOS to assess a project’s impacts, traffic delay is implicated as a key environmental impact that often requires mitigation.  Mitigation measures include the widening of roads, the adding of lanes, and changes in traffic light configuration.  In doing so, traffic flow is put above pedestrians, bicycles, and emissions issues.  Crosswalks, bike lanes, and dedicated bus lanes are made to look bad for the environment because they slow down traffic.  As a result, sprawling, spread-out communities are preferred over infill development, even though studies have shown that a shift from sprawl to infill development actually tends to reduce vehicle travel and emissions (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2007).  Infill development, which is the development of vacant or underutilized parcels in an area that is already built up, is a commonly-accepted tenet of smart growth and a potential casualty of LOS-focused transportation analysis (Farris, 2001).

There is a clear need to move away from the car-centric LOS as the primary indicator of adverse traffic impacts.  Even a project that proposes to build a bike lane needs be measured based on how it would affect the flow of automobile traffic, rather than how it would affect air pollution or public safety!  To truly move towards sustainability, we need to reduce dependence on cars – not just in our daily lives, but in our environmental policy as well.  California had an opportunity to lead the way towards a more sustainable environmental assessment policy, but it failed.  Who will be next to step up to the plate?

California Public Resources Code. (2012.)  California Environmental Quality Act, Section 21000 et seq. Retrieved from http://ceres.ca.gov/ceqa/docs/CEQA_Handbook_2012_wo_covers.pdf

Farris, J. T. (2001). “The barriers to using urban infill development to achieve smart growth”. Housing Policy Debate 12 (1): 1–30.

Lawson, Kristina; McShane, Brady; Matsler, Sean; Costigan, Richard. (2013, 23 May.)  CEQA Reform? What’s In and What’s Out with SB 731 (And What’s Next…).  Retrieved from http://www.manatt.com/Real_Estate_and_Land_Use/CEQA_Reform__What_s_In_and_What_s_Out_with_SB_731_(And_What_s_Next___).aspx

National Research Council (U.S.) Transportation Research Board.  (2000.) HCM 2000: Highway Capacity Manual.  pp. 2-2, 2-3.

Newton, Damien.  (2013, September 11.)  CEQA Reform Update: Is this the End for LOS?  Retrieved from http://la.streetsblog.org/2013/09/11/ceqa-reform-update-is-this-the-end-for-los/

United States Environmental Protection Agency.  (2007, November.)  Measuring the Air Quality and Transportation Impacts of Infill Development, EPA 231-R-07-001. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/pdf/transp_impacts_infill.pdf

Implications of Incomprehensive Assessments: The Case of the Vienna International Airport and Apprehensive Locals

 

Key components of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are the appropriate identification, projection, and significance weighting of adverse impacts that a proposed project may have (Noble 2010). It is crucial that assessments appropriately identify and consider impacts that are expected to be significant, including those that are of concern to stakeholders such as locals who may have to deal with project impacts in the long term. Proposed projects that have incomprehensive EIAs which do not adequately identify and assess such impacts—or worse yet, projects with possibly adverse impacts that lack EIAs altogether—will likely produce apprehension among active stakeholders. A case in point is the expansion of Austria’s international airport, the Vienna-Schwechat airport, and the conflict triggered by its lack of appropriate EIA.

 Vienna-Schwechat International Airport

The Vienna International Airport after several runway and terminal expansions, 2012.

Image Source: http://www.viennareview.net/news/austria/the-3rd-runway-toxic-on-take-off

The expansion of this airport has been more or less continuous since 1995, though much to the demise of concerned stakeholders, several such expansions have not had comprehensive EIAs before recent years (Hart 2013; Dorsch Gruppe 2012). In fact, the Minister-President of Land Niederösterreich (the State of Lower Austria) declared in 2001 that EIAs were not at all required for the continued development of the airport (Hart 2013; Knook 2013). The principal controversy related to the absence of comprehensive EIAs for airport expansions in this case lies in the fact that property values for some who live near the airport have significantly decreased with no consideration due to the added noise and air pollution incurred (Hart 2013). The unease of concerned locals has only been strengthened by the obvious government bias towards completing airport expansions, as the government of Lower Austria is a large shareholder in the airport that would benefit from increased passenger capacity expansions would entail (Wurz 2010).

One homeowner whose property value in Land Niederösterreich decreased with the expansion of the airport’s runway system called much public attention to the issue when she sued Austria and Lower Austria for € 144,000 (approximately CAD $ 223,500) for not requiring that a comprehensive EIA be performed (Dotinga 2013; BOC 2013; Justis Publishing Ltd 2013). In addition to suing the republic and region, the displeased homeowner requested that proponents of further expansions to the airport who do not perform a proper EIA be liable for damages such as decreased property values (Hart 2013). Since the guidelines for an appropriate EIA do not necessitate the assessment of impacts the expansion has on property values—as specified in Artcile 3 of the EIA Directive—, the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled that proponents would not be liable for carrying out expansions in the absence of EIAs that consider such value loss (Hart 2013; Justis Publishing Ltd 2013; Knook 2013). The court suggested that in order to strengthen the argument that an absence of an adequate EIA was responsible for incurred damages, actively concerned homeowners would need to somehow prove that the performance of such an EIA would have lessened acquired property value losses—either by resulting in altered development plans or adapted behaviours of homeowners after consulting such an EIA (Hart 2013; Justis Publishing Ltd 2013). Proving this is no easy task, as many projects often carry on without avoiding impacts identified in EIAs (Hart 2013). Though the Court of Justice has had its say on the matter, the situation is to be dealt with ultimately by the national court, whose decision is currently pending (Dotinga 2013; Knook 2013).

This case is illustrative of the fact that public participation is crucial in the planning and assessment of a project, as it can help in determining impact significance and provide a mean of lessening the apprehension of stakeholders (Noble 2010). Of course in the context of expanding an airport, local stakeholders may always be concerned with potential impacts such as increases in noise and air pollution for health and monetary reasons (Wurz 2012; Dorsch Gruppe 2012). However, meaningful public involvement in the impact assessment and management process may lessen such concerns by lessening the feeling of a project’s imposition on a population, and making mitigative alternatives feasible (Noble 2010). By performing a comprehensive assessment that considered public concerns, Austria and expanders of the airport may have considered the impact of property value loss, avoided the conflict incurred with locals, as well as foregone the negative image that has come along with this internationally reported issue.

 Cartoon

Cartoon regarding ineffective airport noise mitigation, an issue that some homeowners near airports must endure.

Image Source: http://www.mchumor.com/pilotA10_bframe.html


 

References

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act – used at your convenience

The Conservative Government’s recently passed omnibus Bill C-45, which has spurred national demonstrations such as the Idle No More movement, has some notable lesser-popularized inclusions. Along with the infamously regressive policy changes to many of Canada’s environmental laws (1), a new act was introduced, ambiguously named: The Bridge to Strengthen Trade Act.

This Act is referring to a proposed additional international bridge to connect Windsor, Ontario to Detroit, Michigan. It is estimated to cost $1 billion to construct and would be the greatest infrastructural project in our Government’s history (2). However, this Act is problematic in that it has less to do with strengthening trade as it does with impeding any environmental laws that may be associated with its construction.

In subsection 4 of the Bridge to Strengthen Trade Act: the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 does not apply to the bridge, parkway or any related work.

That is except until the potential “expansion, decommissioning or abandonment of the bridge, parkway or any related work” occurs, then the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012 is reintroduced. It also excludes other environmental laws such as the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act (3).

The proposed new additional bridge across the
Detroit River, between Windsor and Detroit (4).

With the environmental impact assessment (EIA) having been completed in 2009 (5) (which was criticized for its lacking of scientific robustness (6)) it is nonsensical to void the EIA laws that should now guide this bridge’s progress.

Government officials have reasoned that this legislation will protect the project from potential lawsuits (7). This only disadvantages those likely to be negatively impacted by its construction. This law is operational disempowerment of Canadian citizen’s ability to legally challenge the project if environmental injustices were to occur.

Transport Canada states that project proponents are still “expected to comply with the intent of existing laws” (8). Though, this is not a legal requirement. They further insist that its construction will be “without delay or stoppage” (7). The current bridge in place has been operating for 84 years, and somehow the immediate need for a new passage is so crucial that the legal assurance requiring the project to follow its actual environmental planning is dismantled. This furthers the role of EIA from one of environmental justice and responsibility to that of an optional political tool.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty holds an economic action plan report as he rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 18, 2012, prior to Bill C-45’s passing.
Source: The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld

The laws in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act are not without purpose. They ensure that approved projects follow protocol, and guarantees developers to their environmental stewardship. Ridding the project from all environmental responsibility does not facilitate sustainable construction practices, and restraining the public from challenging the development is fundamentally antidemocratic.

This law sets a precedent, allowing government to simply nullify environmental impact assessment laws when they may pose inconvenient for development. This then calls into question the very purpose of EIA in Canada, or any environmental law, if the Conservative Government can simply void them when desired.

Link to the Bridge to Strengthen Trade Act (Division 5): http://goo.gl/tCcjd

However, at least the environment wasn’t completely forgotten by all government officials:

“[The proposed bridge] cuts out a lot of traffic lights in Windsor. So that’s good for the environment” – Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States (9).

Link to the Bridge to Strengthen Trade Act (Division 5): http://goo.gl/tCcjd

References:

(1) CBC. “Native Bands Challenge Government’s Failure to Consult Them”. CBC News. Jan 72013 http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/01/07/first-nations-bands-bill-c45-court_n_2428191.html

(2) Bell, Sonya. “Budget bill exempts Windsor-Detroit span from environmental assessment”. iPolitics. Oct 18 2012. http://www.ipolitics.ca/2012/10/18/budget-bill-exempts-proposed-windsor-detroit-span-from-environmental-assessment/

(3) Parliament of Canada. “House Government Bill – C-45, Royal Assent (41-1)”. Dec 2012. http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Language=E&Mode=1&DocId=5942521&File=140

(4) U.S. Secretary of Transport. “Detroit-Canada bridge much more than just another river crossing”. Fast Lane Blog. 2012. http://usdotblog.typepad.com/secretarysblog/page/6/#.UP7HVOg5jSk

(5) Detroit River International Crossing Project. “Environmental Assessment Report”. 2009. http://www.partnershipborderstudy.com/reports_canada.asp

(6) McDermott, Dan. “Sierra Club launches legal action to stop DRIC bridge”. Sierra Club Canada. Aug18 2012. http://www.sierraclub.ca/en/media/release/sierra-club-launches-legal-action-stop-dric-bridge

(7) Chase, Steven. “Ottawa shields new Windsor-Detroit bridge from lawsuits. The Globe and Mail. Oct 19 2012. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ottawa-shields-new-windsor-detroit-bridge-from-lawsuits/article4621953/

(8) Vander Doelen, Chris. “Canada Fires Back at Moroun”. The Windsor Star. Oct 18 2012. http://blogs.windsorstar.com/2012/10/18/canada-fires-back-at-moroun/

(9) CBC. “Transport minister says path clear for Detroit-Windsor bridge”. CBC News. Nov 7 2012. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/story/2012/11/07/wdr-michigan-proposal-six-bridge-windsor-detroit.html

Arctic Shipping in the Wake of Record Ice Melts

The North West Passage (NWP), the shipping route through Canada’s Arctic that would connect Europe and Asia, was once highly sought after. Then, the route was highly dangerous, unpredictable, and ultimately an economically unfeasible route. However, recent record breaking summer ice melts have opened up the possibility for ships to use the NWP, with the first commercial ship doing so in November 2008 (CBC, 2008). The result is renewed interest in the viability of the NWP (see Youtube video below), as well as concern for the possible environmental impact of increased shipping in region, due to the fragility of the Arctic ecosystem.

Arctic Shipping Routes (Mariport, 2007)

The potential environmental impacts of increased arctic shipping are numerous. Emissions of black carbon, especially, are often discussed, as after being emitted into the atmosphere by ships they settle on the ice through dry deposition, lowering the ice’s albedo, and could thus increase ice melting (T&E, 2012; Corbett et. al., 2010). The release of a number of substances into the Arctic aquatic ecosystem, where low light and temperatures slow decomposition, is also of worry (T&E, 2012). As well, due to the remoteness of the Arctic, any accidents, such as oil spills, would be difficult to contain or clean up.

Continue reading

Coal Shipment Threatens the Great Barrier Reef

Coral reefs are one of the most fascinating underwater communities.They support about 25 percent of all marine life while covering only less than 1 percent of the ocean floors (Coral Reef Alliance, 2010). Coral reefs have survived for millions of years; however, recently human induced disturbances and global warming have put these fragile ecosystems under severe pressure which has brought their preservation to the forefront of ecologists and environmentalists’ agenda. The Great Barrier Reef is located in the north-east of Australia and is the world’s largest coral reef. In the past few weeks this reef has been a hot topic in the Australian news as Greenpeace and UNESCO have raised the issue of the probable severe impacts of a proposed coal development project in Cape York on the reef.

In 2010, Rio Tinto mining company proposed a significant expansion of its west Cape York bauxite plants. The project, called the South Embley project, is enormous and its first phase is estimated to cost more than US$1.5 billion, and was supposed to begin in 2012 (Dow Jones, 2012). The project requires a federal assessment under the Australian Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act (Dow Jones, 2012). Nevertheless, the scope of the assessment did not include the impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, and the Environment Department initially approved the proposed expansion project (Colvin, 2012).

Source:http://www.greenpeace.org/international/ en/multimedia/photos/Underwater-Banner-Great-Barrier-Reef/

In March 1st, 2012, Greenpeace released a report documenting the impacts of the project on the Barrier Reef, which included a very significant increase of coal ships traveling through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and 113 million cubic meters dredging of the area (Hepburn, 2012). The report warned that if the project is approved, by 2020 more than one ship per hour will slice through the Great Barrier Reef (Sky News, 2012) While the initial reaction of the Australian politicians was to attack the report and its findings, the resulting public pressure has caused the Australian and the Queensland governments to announce a strategic assessment of the impacts of coal shipping on the coral reef (Hepburn, 2012). The biggest turn of events came a few days ago on the 16thof March, when the Australian Environment Minister announced that based on new information derived from the Rio’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which was provided by the company itself during the assessment process, the original decision on the project is revoked, and an environmental assessment which includes shipping impacts on the coral reefs is now required before the project can begin (Swanepoel, 2012).

On the other hand, Rio Tinto claims that the decision of the government to halt the project for a more rigorous EIA is based on misunderstanding of the data and will put many jobs at risk (Colvin, 2012). The company claims that the project will not increase shipping through The Great Barrier Reef and is urging the government to reconsider its latest decision (Colvin, 2012).

Once again one of the factors that strike me the most about this case is the great capacity of NGOs to pressure governments and large companies, and the responsibility that comes with such power. I doubt that without the Greenpeace campaign to bring the news to the media and the public, the decision to revoke Rio’s permission would have been made so quickly, or at all. Which raises the question, if Rio Tinto is right and there has just been a misunderstanding of the data presented in the draft EIS report, how much is Greenpeace to blame for halting the project and the resulting financial losses to the company and the government? Another important factor is that here is a case where, essentially, the scope of an EIA process is widened after reviewing the findings of the draft EIS;an example that shows how the EA process can change and adapt relative to its initial findings. Whether the Environment Minister decision is right or wrong, we as EIA students and practitioners cannot help but feel thrilled to hear that this project has been halted due to the belief that severe impacts on coral reefs were disregarded in the assessment process; because in EIA when stakes are high it is always better to be safe than sorry.

References:

Colvin, M. 2012. “Rio Tinto baffled as Government sidelines mining expansion” Retrieved from: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2012/s3455371.htm

Coral Reef Alliance. 2010. “Why Care about Coral Reefs?” Retrieved from:

http://www.coral.org/resources/about_coral_reefs/why_care

Dow Jones. 2012. ” Australia To Assess Rio Mine Proposal’s Barrier-Reef Impact” Retrieved from: http://www.foxbusiness.com/news/2012/03/16/australia-to-assess-rio-mine-proposals-barrier-reef-impact/

Hepburn, J. 2012. “Mega coal mines threaten Great Barrier Reef”.Greenpeace. retrieved from: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/climate/mega-coal-mines-threaten-great-barrier-reef/blog/39514/

Sky News. 2012. “Reef will become Coal Ship Highway- Report”. Retrieved from: http://www.skynews.com.au/eco/article.aspx?id=724080&vId=

Swanepoel, E. 2012. “Australia to Probe Impact of Rio Expansion on Great Barrier Reef”. Mining Weekly. Retrieved from: http://www.miningweekly.com/article/australia-to-probe-impact-of-rio-expansion-on-great-barrier-reef-2012-03-16