New Prosperity – Same Old Result: Revisiting Taseko’s Gold-Copper Mine Proposal

Two years ago, another MEnv student wrote about the Prosperity mine in British Columbia. This was a mining project which was approved in the BC provincial environmental assessment process in 2009 but rejected in the federal process. Within the post, the student writes “an in depth comparison shall be necessary once the environmental impact assessment is officially completed under the CEAA 2012”, and two years later, the results are in! In February 2012, a decision statement was issued by the Canadian Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, stating that Taseko (the proponent) once again would not be granted permission for development [1]. After reviewing and writing a 7000 word paper on the most recent environmental impact statement submitted to the review panel by Taseko, it was not surprising to me why their project was denied approval.

Taseko attempted to deal with the concerns raised in 2009 about fish habitat by implementing new mitigation measures to preserve some of the habitat which originally would have been destroyed, explained through this video.

If you’re pressed for time, skip ahead to 5:40 where Taseko claims that their tailings pond will create suitable habitat for fish. Unfortunately for Taseko, much of the science underpinning this claim came into question during the review process. A study of the project’s tailings storage facility launched by Natural Resources Canada found a seepage rate eleven times higher than the predicted values in the environmental assessment [2].

Taseko have also failed to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from First Nations within the region, something considered to be part of best practice in mining [3]. The mitigation measures implemented by Taseko in their New Prosperity proposal did not do enough to convince the Tsilhqot’in First Nations that the project is safe. This was exemplified by Chief William who stated that “the Tsilhqot’in Nation remains unified in its opposition to this project because of the tremendous destruction it would mean for critical traditional lands and waters and the cultural survival of the Tsilhqot’in people”[4].  The Tsilhqot’in made history in 2014 when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld its land title claim to 1700 square kilometers [5]. Making the matter even more confusing is that the granted land claim shows that the New Prosperity mine is not directly on Tsilhqot’in territory, leading Taseko to believe their project should now move forward [6]. This is an example of how an overarching agreement, such as the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) in Quebec, between government and First Nations, would not only benefit private industry but also help in protecting the traditions and cultures of First Nations.

Tsilhqot’in protest the Prosperity mine

New Prosperity is an example of a project which is a risk to the environment. Questionable science has been used, and I believe the proper decision was made. However, like a child who won’t take no for an answer, Taseko is filing a lawsuit against the federal government. They are seeking damages for the rejection of their project. The legitimacy of EIA might be questioned if a project is rejected and companies receive damages for money spent on projects prior to approval. As Tim Timberg, lawyer for the federal Environment Minister put it, “the real remedy Taseko seeks remains the same – to quash these administrative decisions and allow them to proceed with the construction of the proposed mine” [7]. This mining project is not only important for the area where it will be built, but also will speak volumes about the legitimacy and integrity of environmental assessment in Canada. Will Taseko be granted another chance for approval due to their increasing legal pressures on the federal government? Only time will tell…

References

[1] Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. (2014, February 25). Decision Statement Issued under Section 54 of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012. Retrieved February 8th 2015, from http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/document-eng.cfm?document=98458

[2] Natural Resources Canada. (2013, July 4). Numerical Modeling of Groundwater Seepage from the Tailings Storage Facility of the Proposed Taseko New Prosperity Gold-Copper Mine Project. Retrieved February 8th 2015, from http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/p63928/90733E.pdf

[3] International Council on Mining and Metals. (2015). 10 Principles. Retrieved February 8th 2015, from http://www.icmm.com/our-work/sustainable-development-framework/10-principles

[4] Zilker, Wolfgang. (2013, June 20). Tsilhqot’in Nation Prepares for Public Hearings for Controversial New Prosperity Mine Proposal as Taseko Mines Ltd. Refuses to Answer Direct Requests from the Panel. Retrieved February 8th 2015, from http://www.protectfishlake.ca/letters/2013-06/tsilhqot-146-in-nation-prepares-for-public-hearings-for-controversial-new-prosperity-mine-proposal-as-taseko-mines-ltd-refuses-to-answer-direct-requests-from-the-panel.php

[5] CBC News. (2014, June 26). Tsilhqot’in First Nation granted B.C. title claim in Supreme Court ruling. Retrieved February 8th 2015, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/tsilhqot-in-first-nation-granted-b-c-title-claim-in-supreme-court-ruling-1.2688332

[6] Klein, Greg. (2014, June 26). Taseko Says Land Claims Ruling Shows New Prosperity Outside Aboriginal Territory. Retrieved February 8th 2015, from http://resourceclips.com/2014/06/26/taseko-says-land-claims-ruling-shows-new-prosperity-outside-aboriginal-territory/

[7] Moore, Dene. (2014, October 22). Taseko says Environment Minister’s rejection of B.C. mine improper. Retrieved February 8th 2015, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/taseko-says-environment-ministers-rejection-of-bc-mine-improper/article21250492/

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Should the Insurance Industry Take a More Active Role in EIA?

According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business the only industry that has firmly embraced the reality of climate change is the reinsurance and insurance industry.  Extreme weather events are happening more frequently due to climate change, and surprisingly the insurance industry is convinced that the change is being caused by human activity [3].  Reinsurers and insurers rely on being able to judge that the risks to the projects that they insure can be accurately modelled over the entire lifespan of the project: their financial well-being depends on it.  With the increased occurrence of extreme weather events over the past 40 years, losses incurred have climbed steadily with the weather-related claims paid out doubling every decade since the 1980s [3].  These ever increasing payouts have motivated the world’s biggest reinsurers and insurers to accept climate change as a reality and become experts at modelling the expected changes over the coming decades.  They have incorporated the results of those models into their calculations about the risks associated with the projects that they insure.Rescue-workers-walk-past-homes-destroyed-by-Superstorm-Sandy-Oct.-31-2012-in-Seaside-Heights-New-Jersey.-Mario-TamaGetty-Images-650x433

(Mario Tama, Getty Images 2012)

The Environmental Impact Assessment process is supposed to identify and predict the impacts of a proposed development over its entire lifespan – from planning through construction and operation to decommissioning [2].  Further, the EIA process is to propose mitigation measures for those impacts along with a plan to monitor them over the project lifespan and beyond.  These mitigation measures along with decommissioning and rehabilitation after the completion of the project involve the highest level of uncertainty in the EIA process [2].  For the insurance industry these activities present the biggest financial risk, especially decommissioning and rehabilitation.  The risk increases with time as the extent of the impacts of the project increase leading to the possibility that more people may be affected over a greater area leading to greater compensation costs for the insurer.  Of special concern are decommissioning costs as there is a higher probability that the project proponent may not fulfill their obligations for site rehabilitation leading to those costs being passed on to the insurer [4].  Environmental insurance policies up until now have generally been for specific impacts of a project such as the damage caused by the release of dangerous materials into the air or water, or onto the land.  The world’s largest insurers, such as Munich Re and Lloyd’s, have come to the conclusion that they must incorporate climatic change into their calculations of the risks involved when insuring various large long-term projects [3].  The Insurance industry is concerned with the accuracy of the projected long term effects, cost of mitigation, cost of decommissioning, cost of damages that may be incurred, but uncertainty in the environmental assessment process makes this difficult.  While it is understood that there are uncertainties in the prediction of the future, the communication of those uncertainties to decision makers needs to be improved [1].  Research by the insurance industry has quantified some of those uncertainties [3] and it needs to be shared with the EA community.

Since the insurance industry is able to quantify some of the uncertainties of the EA process, should they take a more active role in EIA?  If so, at what level should they participate?  Should they function within the regulatory process, or as independent evaluators?  Within the regulatory EA system, proponents could benefit from insurance industry expertise when preparing project submissions and regulatory agencies could benefit from better analysis of the risks of the projects they are evaluating.  Perhaps insurance industry evaluation of a project should be a required component of the regulatory process.  I believe including insurers in the EA process would improve the quality of EA.  The EA process would benefit from the ability of the insurance industry to provide insight into the uncertainties in the EA process, especially with respect to impact prediction and mitigation.  Furthermore, the impacts of climate change would be included in all projects regardless of the acceptance of the magnitude of those changes by both proponents and regulators.  It is time for the insurance industry to work with all parties in the EA process to improve that process and help provide a better future.

CBC_Toronto2013

(CBC, 2013)

References:

[1] Gunn, J. & Noble, B. (2014). Uncertainty disclosure and consideration in environmental assessment: An agenda for research and practice. Unpublished, presented on Jan. 7, 2014 at Concordia University.

[2] Noble, Bram. (2008). Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice, Second Edition. Toronto: Oxford University Press

[3] Reguly, E. (2013, 12). The smartest guys on the planet. Report on Business, 30(5), 66-76.

[4] Susavidge, M. A. (2002, 03 01). Environmental insurance insuring the deal. Retrieved from http://www.canadianunderwriter.ca/news/environmental-insurance-insuring-the-deal/1000113570/?&er=NA

The push for renewable energy: a role for impact assessment?

Depending on which day you’re looking at the news, or which sources you’re following, or even which sections you choose to delve into, it can be unclear where we stand in terms of renewable and clean energy. New coalfields are being developed in Australia, Ecuador’s rain forests continue to be transformed into oil fields, and fracking is becoming commonplace news. At the same time, investments in renewable energy seem to be growing and governments continue to proclaim their commitment to green technologies and sustainable energy policies. So the question remains: why are we not further along in our push for ‘green growth?’

United States President Barack Obama discussing his commitments to changing the US’s energy policy at a June 2013 speech at Georgetown.

Christina Figuere’s, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), stated in early January that investment in clean technology needs to grow to $1 trillion a year within the next 10 to 15 years, signifying a tripling over current investments ($300 billion/yr). In mid-January, in line with this imperative, Ceres Investor Network organized a meeting of the world’s chief financial interests to discuss the needed increase in renewable investments [1]. This is a prime example of how more and more we are putting our environmental future at the mercy of business; placing faith in their ability to see that our current trajectory is unsustainable and not viable economically. It is increasingly common to frame decisions regarding unsustainable energy in terms of investor motivations rather than social and environmental imperatives [2].

All this leads me to question what role government can have in promoting renewable energy. As much as our world has opened up and globalization has entrenched the role of the private sector and economic interests, the role of the state should not be discounted. For one, it is governments that meet at international organizations to enter into agreements about policies for energy and climate. In 2011 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report stating that almost 80% of the world’s energy could be supplied through renewable sources (bioenergy, solar, geothermal, hydropower, ocean, and wind energy) by 2050, pushing us towards stabilizing the climate, pending “consistent climate and energy policy support” [3]. The main hiccup towards moving in this regard is not an issue of resource availability but rather the proper economic and political policies supporting their development.

Annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts, through 2030. The model for these predictions takes into account a 3-fold increase in yearly investments in renewable energy by the year 2030. (Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

Annual installations of new power sources, in gigawatts, through 2030. The model for these predictions takes into account a 3-fold increase in yearly investments in renewable energy by the year 2030.
(Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

Increased emphasis on natural gas and oil in the form of fracking, oil sands, and heavy-crude are proof to many that we are moving into what Hampshire College Professor Michael T. Klare [4] names “The Third Carbon Age: The Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.” Klare bases a number of his findings on a November 2012 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) that states that our energy demands led to government subsidies for fossil fuels totalling $523 billion in 2011 [5]. Coal alone has met the need of almost half of the rising energy demands in the past 10 years. Similarly to the IPPC report, the IEA report states that actually realizing energy efficiency is not related to unprecedented technological discoveries, but rather on “taking actions to remove the barriers obstructing the implementation of energy efficiency measures that are economically viable” [5]. The key is to change the incentives in decision-making processes. As a student of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), I believe that impact assessment can play a pivotal role in the process towards shaping energy policy decisions. The incorporation of energy efficiency priorities and overall sustainability into impact assessment is absolutely integral to our ability to move towards sustainable energy.

World’s total energy use projected through 2013 – more and more energy will be accounted for by renewable energy sources.
(Source: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels, provided by BNEF)

The pressure to include sustainability thought processes within EIA has been the subject of much research. Pope, et al. [6] discuss the importance of performing an ‘assessment for sustainability,’ in order to actually determine whether a plan is sustainable. Its purpose is simple: to unambiguously answer the closed-question of whether or not a policy or plan is sustainable. The guidelines for a sustainability assessment should be created in a top-down manner: determining what it means to be sustainable, and then identifying principles that represent this objective. The authors find that when sustainability assessment is incorporated within EIA, it tends to be through bringing in the thinking of economics, environment and society, and then attempting to reduce negative effects to all three. This results in an inherent competition and the acceptance that that trade-offs are necessary. However, since this is at a project level, the overall goal of sustainability at the level of society is never addressed. At this point a project has already been decided on and you are dealing with tweaking the details of a potentially inherently unsustainable project.

Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) are used to assess the impacts of plans and policies in order to guide decision-making processes. If countries are serious about making changes to their environmental policies and promoting the development of sustainable energy, an SEA is an important tool that could be used to give an all-encompassing picture of the status of energy resources nationally. This information would in turn be used to inform project choice and implementation, as well as the EIA process of projects. As Hugé et al state [7], “the appeal of impact assessments lies in their systematic, stepwise approach and in their contribution to generate ‘order out of chaos,’” (p. 6247). I particularly like this notion of EIA, and think that it encompasses the principle that we must lay everything out on the table in order to make clear guidelines on environmental policy. While it is true that investment from the private sector is immensely important in the move towards sustainable development, SEA is an important tool to help countries put in place policies that will act as a catalyst for this change.

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References

[1] Goldenberg, S. 2013, Jan 14. “Why We Need to Triple Clean Energy Investment.” Mother Jones. Web. 21 Jan 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/01/un-climate-chief-christiana-figueres-triple-clean-energy-investment

[2] McDonnell, T. 2013, Apr. 22. “Charts: The Smart Money Is on Renewable Energy.” Mother Jones. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/04/charts-renewable-energy-fossil-fuels

[3] IPCC. 2011. PRESS RELEASE: Potential of Renewable Energy Outlined in Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Retrieved from: http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/press/content/srren-press-release-updated-version.pdf

[4] Klare, M. T. 2013, Aug. 8. “The Third Carbon Age.” The Nation. Web. 21 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.thenation.com/article/175659/third-carbon-age#.

[5] IEA. 2012. World Energy Outlook 2012: Executive Summary. Retrieved from: http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/English.pdf

[6] Pope, J., Annandale, D., Morrison-Saunders, A. 2004. Conceptualising sustainability Assessment. EIA Review. 24: 595-616.

[7] Hugé, J., Waas, T., Eggermont, G., Verbruggen, A. 2011. Impact assessment for a sustainable energy future—Reflections and practical experiences. Energy Policy. 39: 6243-6253.

Mapping Cumulative Effects: GIS for CEA

Cumulative effects assessment (CEA) is typically a part of most project-based EIA frameworks and applications and refers to the consideration of the accumulation of human-induced changes on the environment over space and time (Noble, 2010). CEA accounts for additive effects of several development projects, including past, present and future projects, as well as impact interactions over time, and secondary or indirect effects. Examples include time lags, cross boundary, fragmentation, and compounding effects from multiple sources or pathways (Blaser et al., 2004).

Geographic Information systems (GIS) are systems of computer hardware and software for storing, transforming, managing, analyzing and displaying spatial information (Treweek, 1999). The use of GIS in EIA involves determining the location of human and environmental variables and understanding the relationships between them. GIS allows environmental information to be added and updated over time and space making it dynamic and ideal for evaluating planning options for development (Atkinson and Canter, 2011).

As GIS is becoming increasingly functional and popular, its use for environmental resource analysis has increased three-fold in the last three decades (Li et al., 2011). Since CEA usually deals with complex multifaceted systems, the ability of GIS to store, manipulate, analyze, and display sets of geographical data makes it well-suited to this task (Warner and Diab, 2002). Furthermore, GIS is conducive to the typically larger geographic scale of CEA studies which require regional analysis. Useful applications for CEA include the ability to establish baseline conditions and study boundaries for regional assessment, measuring change over time, identifying locations that are impacted by multiple actions and ones most heavily affected, forecasting future conditions, and calculating additive effects (Blaser, 2004).

GIS is particularly useful for the assessment of cumulative ecological effects because it facilitates the mapping and modelling of ecological impacts conveyed over large geographical scales using remotely sensed data (Treweek, 1999). By quantifying the spatial attributes of habitat distribution and organization, ecologists can describe declines or recoveries of habitat types in a study area and recognize when thresholds of habitat loss and fragmentation are exceeded, thereby demonstrating resource vulnerability (Treweek, 1999; Atkinson and Canter, 2011).

In spite of the many positive aspects, there are some limitations of using GIS for impact assessment. In addition to the typical disadvantages of high time, cost, and skill requirements, it can be difficult to address indirect effects (Blaser et al., 2004) and the magnitude of cumulative effects from multiple past, present, and future actions. Other potential problems may arise from data errors resulting from entering data at different scales, compatibility issues between different data forms and systems, and a lack of quality assurance and control on data sets used (Atkinson and Canter, 2011). Despite these potential setbacks, GIS shows much promise and will surely become increasingly valuable and even essential for cumulative effects assessment.

An example of a GIS-based model for assessing cumulative effects in Canada is a predictive modeling approach focusing on cultural and historical sites in the tar sands region of Alberta (Clarke and Lowell, 2002). Nine layers of environmental and human variables were combined to identify zones for potential cumulative effects on these sites based on existing and approved mining development projects. Another example comes from Popplewell et al. (2003) who developed a GIS-based model founded on landscape metrics derived from a satellite image classification of landcover to quantify the structure of grizzly bear habitats within bear management units in west-central Alberta. A combination of effects caused by human and natural disturbances was used to analyze differences in bear habitat.

References

Atkinson, SF and LW Canter 2011. Assessing the cumulative effects of projects using geographic information systems. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 31, 457-464.

Blaser, B, Liu, H, McDermott, D, Nuszdorfer, F, Phan, NT, Vanchindorj, U, Johnson, L and J Wyckoff 2004. GIS-Based Cumulative Effects Assessment. Colorado Department of Transportation Research Branch. University of Colorado, Denver, 39p.

Clarke, G and S Lowell 2002. Historical resources cumulative effects management through predictive modeling. In Kennedy, AJ (ed). Cumulative Environmental Effects Management: Tools and Approaches. Alberta Society of Professional Biologists, p. 279–95.

Li, R, Bettinger, P, Danskin, S and R Hayashi 2005. A historical perspective on the use of GIS and remote sensing in natural resource management, as viewed through papers published in North American Forestry Journals from 1976 to 2005. Cartographica, 42, 165–79.

Noble, BF 2010. Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice. Don Mills, Canada: Oxford University Press.

Poppelwell, C, Franklin, SE, Stenhouse, G and M Hall-Beyer 2003. Using landscape structure to classify grizzly bear density in Alberta Yellowhead Ecosystem bear management units. Ursus, 14(1), 27-34.

Treweek, J. 1999. Ecological Impact Assessment. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Science Ltd.

Warner, LL and RD Diab 2002. Use of geographic information systems in an environmental impact assessment of an overhead power line. Impact Assessment Project Appraisal, 20, 39–47.