Category Archives: Sensitive wildlife habitats

LA TIMES: Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

Repost from the Los Angeles Times
[Editor: This is an incredibly entertaining as well as informative article. Recommended reading!  – RS]

Will San Luis Obispo County follow the lead of Benicia and ban oil trains, or capitulate to Phillips 66?

By Robin Abcarian, September 24, 2016 2:25PM

latimes_abcarianThere were a couple of light moments Thursday at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s interminable, inconclusive public hearing about whether it should allow the fossil fuel giant Phillips 66 to send crude-oil trains across California to its Santa Maria Refinery.

A local named Gary, one of only four citizens to express support for the project, took the microphone and announced, “Anybody opposed to something because it’s dangerous is my definition of a coward.” As he walked away, the audience, packed with oil train opponents, howled.

“My name is Sherry Lewis,” said the next speaker, “and I come from Cowards Anonymous.”

After several hearings, reams of public comment and a few concessions by Phillips 66, commissioners were finally supposed to put the matter to a vote this week.

Would they approve the construction of a new rail spur and oil transfer operation that would give Phillips the ability to send three new crude-oil trains through California each week, or would they defy their staff, who recommended denial because the project would have significant negative effects, particularly to air quality and sensitive habitats?

Would they disregard their pleading constituents, and the letters that have poured in from cities, teachers and boards of supervisors from San Francisco to Los Angeles asking commissioners to deny the project because those mile-long oil trains bring increased risk to every California community along Union Pacific tracks?

(Not to belabor the point, but if you live, work or study within half a mile of those tracks, you’re in what is known, for emergency planning purposes, as the “blast zone.” Even the mayor of nearby Paso Robles, who has offered lukewarm support for the project, once referred to them as “bomb trains.”)

Last spring, three of five commissioners indicated they were leaning toward approval. But one of them, a local realtor named Jim Irving, now appears to be on the fence.

The regulatory issues around oil trains are complex and somewhat maddening. Local and state governments, for example, have no say over what is carried on railroad tracks, because the federal government regulates interstate commerce. Think of the chaos if individual cities tried to impose rules on railroads.

Even though cities and counties have no control over railroads, they still want assurances that tracks and bridges are safe for the heavy, mile-long trains that carry highly flammable crude oil. We all do, don’t we?

Thursday, Irving asked about the Stenner Creek Trestle, a picturesque, 85-foot-high steel railroad bridge just north of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus that was built in 1894.

Could Union Pacific reassure the county that the bridge is sound enough to carry those heavy tanker cars? As recently as June, a slow-moving Union Pacific oil train derailed near an elementary school and a water treatment plant on the Columbia River Gorge in Mosier, Ore. That derailment has weighed heavily on people’s minds around here.

“We tried to request documentation from Union Pacific related to the stability of bridges,” county planner Ryan Hostetter told Irving, “and all we got was a form with a checked box that they had inspected.”

“That’s kind of appalling,” said Irving.

::

These are not idle questions, and they are being faced by communities all over the country.

As my colleague Ralph Vartabedian has reported, some of the nation’s top safety experts believe “the government has misjudged the risk posed by the growing number of crude-oil trains.”

The Mosier train derailment was caused by failing bolts that allowed the tracks to separate. This was particularly worrisome because the tracks had been inspected the previous week.

“For me, that was a game changer,” said Benicia City Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. “I just don’t think the rail industry has caught up with safety standards.”

On Tuesday, Strawbridge and her colleagues on the Benicia City Council voted 5-0 to deny a project very much like the one under consideration in San Luis Obispo County. This one was proposed by energy behemoth Valero, which owns a refinery in Benicia.

Unlike Phillips’ Santa Maria Refinery, which employs only 120 people full time, Valero is Benicia’s largest employer. The refinery provides nearly 25% of the city’s annual $31 million budget. It has been a good neighbor, said Strawbridge, and charitable.

But she and her colleagues could not put their town at risk. After four years of debate, and a last-minute declaration by the federal Surface Transportation Board that oil companies cannot claim they are exempt from local regulations just because they use the railroads, the council said no to oil trains.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs on the street,” Strawbridge told me Friday.

They are well deserved.

::

Next month, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission is scheduled, finally, to vote on this thing. After that, the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors will weigh in.

The wild card seems to be the board’s one open seat, in District 1, which comprises towns in the more conservative north side of the county. That supervisor has often functioned as a swing vote on the board. Two conservatives are vying for the seat, the aforementioned mayor of Paso Robles, Steve Martin, and John Peschong, a well-known Republican operative whose firm, Meridian Pacific Inc., received $262,000 from Phillips 66 in 2015, according to the oil company’s website.

Maybe the leaders of San Luis Obispo County will look north to the tiny city of Benicia for inspiration. That town, after all, had far more at stake.

They have a chance to do the right thing, not just for their county, but for all of California.

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North America’s Oil And Gas Industry Has Taken Over 7 Million Acres Of Land Since 2000

Repost from Think Progress’s Climate Progress

North America’s Oil And Gas Industry Has Taken Over 7 Million Acres Of Land Since 2000

By Katie Valentine, April 24, 2015 at 12:28 pm

Millions of acres of land across the U.S. and Canada has been taken over by oil and gas development in the last 12 years, according to a new study.

The study, published Friday in Science, tallied up the amount of land that’s been developed to house drilling well pads, roads, and other oil and gas infrastructure in 11 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. It found that between 2000 and 2012, about 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) have been turned over to oil and gas development, a stretch of land that, combined, is equal to three Yellowstone National Parks.

This land takeover can have ecological consequences, according to the report.

“Although small in comparison with the total land area of the continent, this important land use is not accounted for and creates additional pressures for conserving rangelands and their ecosystem functions,” the report states. “The distribution of this land area has negative impacts: increasing fragmentation that can sever migratory pathways, alter wildlife behavior and mortality, and increase susceptibility to ecologically disruptive invasive species.”

Most of the land converted into drilling operations was cropland and rangeland — a term that encompasses prairies, grassland, shrubland, and other ecosystem types — and roughly 10 percent was woodland. Wetlands, according to the report, were mostly spared by oil and gas developers, though a very small amount have been converted into oil and gas sites.

CREDIT: Science/AAAS

Land takeover due to oil and gas development can have a number of negative consequences, the report states. It removes vegetation that’s important for food, habitat, and carbon storage, and it also fragments ecosystems in such a way that can disrupt the natural behavior of wildlife.

According to the report, oil and gas development reduced the study area’s net primary production (NPP) — the rate at which an ecosystem produces plant biomass, which the report calls “a fundamental measure of a region’s ability to provide ecosystem services” — by 4.5 teragrams (9,920,801,798 pounds). The amount of vegetation lost from rangelands amounts to about five million animal unit months (the amount of vegetable forage required to feed an animal for one month), which “is more than half of annual available grazing on public lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.”

“The loss of NPP is likely long-lasting and potentially permanent, as recovery or reclamation of previously drilled land has not kept pace with accelerated drilling,” the report states.

Steve Running, co-author of the study and ecology professor at the University of Montana, told Midwest Energy News that the upward trend of oil and gas development is concerning in terms of land use, especially if serious efforts to reclaim land aren’t taken.

“The point we’re trying to make with this paper is not so much that some huge fraction of current land area has been de-vegetated, as much as the trajectory of drilling, (consuming) a half-million acres per year,” he said. “If we continue that to 2050, you get to some seriously big amounts of land.”

CREDIT: Science/AAAS

Right now, there’s not much known about to what extent oil and gas areas in the U.S. are being reclaimed after they’ve been developed, said Samuel D. Fuhlendorf, another co-author of the report from Oklahoma State University. And, he said, there isn’t much work at the federal or state level to regulate or enforce this reclamation. Some states — including Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Dakota, and West Virginia — do require oil and gas companies to submit plans for reclaiming land after they’re done drilling. But others, like Colorado, don’t require these plans.

“You’d expect there would be both state- and federal-level policy,” Running told Midwest Energy News. “But we’re not aware of a clear policy on this. We don’t see any active discussion or regulatory planning of how that’s going to be done, who will do it and when it will be done. Beyond policy, is there actual enforcement. We are not aware that any state or federal policies are actively following this.”

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Wolves Shot From Choppers Shows Oil Harm Beyond Pollution

Repost from Bloomberg News

Wolves Shot From Choppers Shows Oil Harm Beyond Pollution

by Rebecca Penty, April 22, 2015 5:00 PM PDT
Wolves Shot From Choppers Shows Oil Sands Harm Beyond Pollution
British Columbia killed 84 wolves in the hunt that ended this month. Alberta eliminated 53 this year, bringing its total killed through the program since 2005 to 1,033. Source: Universal Education/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Here’s one aspect of Canada’s energy boom that isn’t being thwarted by the oil market crash: the wolf cull.

The expansion of oil-sands mines and drilling pads has brought the caribou pictured on Canada’s 25-cent coin to the brink of extinction in Alberta and British Columbia. To arrest the population decline, the two provinces are intensifying a hunt of the caribou’s main predator, the gray wolf. Conservation groups accuse the provinces of making wolves into scapegoats for man-made damage to caribou habitats.

The cull carried out in winter when the dark fur of the wolves is easier to spot against the snow has claimed more than 1,000 animals since 2005. Hunters shoot them with high-powered rifles from nimble two-seat helicopters that can hover close to a pack or lone wolf. In Alberta, some are poisoned with big chunks of bait laced with strychnine, leading to slow and painful deaths that may be preceded by seizures and hypothermia.

“It’s an unhappy necessity,” Stan Boutin, a University of Alberta biologist, said of the government-sponsored hunt. “We’ve let the development proceed so far already that now, trying to get industry out of an area, is just not going to happen.”

The energy industry has delivered a death blow to caribou by turning prime habitat into production sites and by introducing linear features on the landscape that give wolves easy paths to hunt caribou, such as roads, pipelines and lines of downed trees created by oil and gas exploration.

A drop in drilling after oil prices plunged can’t reverse the damage. More than C$350 billion ($285 billion) spent by Alberta’s oil-sands producers to build an industrial complex that’s visible from space have made the province’s boreal herds of woodland caribou the most endangered in the country. Their population is falling by about half every eight years, according to a 2013 study in the Canadian Journal of Zoology.

Caribou Ranges

Since 2005, Alberta has auctioned the rights to develop more than 25,000 square kilometers (9,652 square miles) of land in caribou ranges to energy companies, according to the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, an Ottawa-based charity. That’s equivalent to about three times New York’s metropolitan area.

“When the oil industry goes in there and cuts those lines and drills and puts in pipelines, it helps the wolves,” said Chad Lenz, a hunting guide with two decades of experience based in Red Deer, Alberta. Lenz has watched caribou herds shrink as the number of wolves soar. “There’s not a place in Alberta that hasn’t been affected by industry, especially the oil industry.”

Home to the world’s third-largest proven crude reserves, Alberta depends on levies from the energy industry to build new roads, schools and hospitals.

British Columbia

British Columbia joined Alberta in sponsoring a wolf hunt this year as its logging and energy industries too are putting populations of woodland caribou at risk. Canada’s westernmost province is trying to erase its debt with revenues from the energy industry, as companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc consider multibillion-dollar gas export projects along the Pacific Coast.

The provinces are widening their wolf cull — a stop gap poised to extend for years — as companies such as Devon Energy Corp. join in testing other radical measures to revive the herds.

British Columbia killed 84 wolves in the hunt that ended this month. Alberta eliminated 53 this year, bringing its total killed through the program since 2005 to 1,033.

Conservation groups have petitioned for the end of a program they deem unethical without aggressive habitat recovery, while the provinces keep selling drilling rights on caribou ranges.

‘Scapegoating Wolves’

“We do not support the current wolf kill,” said Carolyn Campbell, a conservation specialist at the Alberta Wilderness Association, a Calgary-based advocacy group. “It’s an unethical way to scapegoat wolves.”

The provinces are only poised to kill more wolves, though, as they prepare plans to reverse the population decline for each caribou range ahead of a 2017 Canadian government deadline.

Alberta is expected to continue the cull in the first of its range plans to be released this year, which will serve as a model for handling of the other herds, said Duncan MacDonnell, a spokesman for Alberta’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development department. British Columbia’s 2015 cull was just the first of a five-year program.

Killing wolves is saving caribou from extinction while governments and energy companies consider new approaches, said the University of Alberta’s Boutin.

Industry Efforts

The energy industry has worked to reduce its impact on caribou by adding gates on roads to block access and by returning disturbed land to a more natural state, said Chelsie Klassen, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

After spending about C$200 million annually for 12 years to help revive the caribou and watching populations continue to fall, companies are finally seeing small successes, said Amit Saxena, senior biodiversity and land specialist at Devon.

Wolves tracked with collars are being deterred from areas where companies have replanted trees, Saxena said. At its Jackfish oil-sands project, Devon is monitoring a fenced patch of land to see if it can keep out wolves and bears attracted by bait. Until the lessons can be successfully applied to wider swaths of land, the wolf cull will have to continue, he said.

“Sustainability of caribou herds and oil and gas activity can go hand in hand on the landscape,” Saxena said. “If we can manage that predation level that is too excessive in some areas, then caribou can recover on an industrial, active working landscape.”

Habitat Recovery

The human impact can’t all be reversed for herds that each require about 30,000 square kilometers of mostly undisturbed land to thrive, Boutin said. The biologist advocates building pens for pregnant and newborn caribou and larger fenced-off areas for certain entire herds.

“Habitat recovery will be part of the toolbox but it will never be useful on its own,” Boutin said. If provincial governments don’t pursue radical ideas such as maternity pens, fences and predator control, “then they’re going to be wasting everybody’s time.”

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