China has recently been generating a tremendous amount of news because of its pressing need to decrease air pollution and build a clean energy future. This is a heavy undertaking, as China is the world’s leading producer and consumer of coal. To help reduce coal pollution in China, Pacific Environment just hired Sun Qingwei, who will lead our training and organizing efforts with local environmental groups in China.
Sun Qingwei is no stranger to the coal sector. Growing up in the coal mining region of Shandong, Sun Qingwei witnessed first-hand the health and environmental problems associated with coal production. After receiving a Ph.D. in Physical Geography, Sun Qingwei worked as a researcher for the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he studied land degradation caused by intensive human activities. It was because of his research that Sun Qingwei realized it was time to make a change in China, so he left academia to become a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace.
I sat down with Sun Qingwei to learn more about the coal pollution problems in China and what local communities can do to help decrease China’s reliance on coal.
Caroline: Welcome to the Pacific Environment team! We have heard so much about China’s coal consumption and poor air quality in the news. Has the air pollution problem changed people’s perceptions in China about using coal?
Qingwei: China’s public movement against air pollution has made it more possible to reduce coal use in China. Still, the majority of people don’t realize that air pollution is related to coal. People need more information to understand that air pollution is due to coal, and they need to realize that it’s possible to change the infrastructure to use less coal and switch to renewable energy. Part of my job is helping people recognize such change is possible.
Caroline: You grew up in a coal mining town. Can you tell me what living there was like?
Qingwei: I think where I grew up was similar to coal mining areas all over the world—very dirty! But my parents did what they had to do to support our family. I felt that coal was a part of my life, but after I graduated from college, I realized maybe we can live without pollution—and without coal—and that we have better choices. At that time, I was researching sustainable development, but I was frustrated with the pace of change and that’s why I wanted to move to the NGO sector.
Caroline: In your reports for Greenpeace [where Qingwei previously worked], you examined how China’s coal sector impacts water in China. Can you explain what the problems are?
Qingwei: Water in China is scarce. In northern China, the lack of water is causing land degradation, harming rural communities. These communities rely on the land for their livelihood and as groundwater decreases, farmers lose their grazing lands and their wells dry up. The government just built several major river diversion projects, through the creation of dams, to transport water from southern to northern China, partially to help alleviate this problem. But now new coal mines and new coal-to-chemical plants are being built in the most arid regions of China, where they are worsening water scarcity by grabbing water [including water transferred from southern China] from rural communities.
Caroline: What do you consider to be one of the most satisfying victories against coal during your NGO career so far?
Qingwei: About two years ago, when I was working for Greenpeace, we began to investigate China’s biggest coal company, Shenhua. We knew it produced coal-to-liquid fuel (diesel) at its plant in Inner Mongolia, which is a very dry area. Producing liquid fuels from coal is a very water intensive process. Shenhua was tapping groundwater and, in the process, had already destroyed 2,000 local wells. In addition, the livelihoods of more than 5,000 farmers and sheep herders were threatened by grassland degradation, which was also caused by Shenhua’s groundwater depletion.
We launched an investigation and released a report that demonstrated Shenhua’s responsibility for destroying the grasslands and harming local agricultural communities that depend on them. After 30 days, the report was censored by the central government, but just last month, we got a message directly from the company saying that they had decided to stop using groundwater for coal processing in that location. We realized that despite being censored, our message had been heard by top leaders and resulted in political pressure on Shenhua. The leaders at the company became nervous because this was not the only case where they were grabbing groundwater from a local community. In fact, there are many such projects in other parts of China and coal companies don’t want to draw too much attention to them, which is why Shenhua’s leaders compromised. This was the first time that we have had a win against the number one coal company in China.
Caroline: What do you think is the most effective strategy in China to reduce coal production and consumption?
Qingwei: There are two important strategies. First, Beijing-based lobbying which focuses on economic arguments for switching to more renewable energy. Some NGOs and research institutions are already doing this. A second critical strategy is putting pressure on the government by mobilizing public concern over air and water pollution, and this is where local NGOs can have a big impact. Pacific Environment is working with local groups to identify sources of coal pollution and make the connection with air and water pollution. The next step is cleaning up or closing pollution sources, or pushing for local governments to replace dirty energy with cleaner energy. This kind of action will put bottom-up pressure on local governments and national policy makers to take bolder steps.
Caroline: Do you think increasing public awareness about the harmful impacts of coal will help?
Qingwei: Yes, I think most people need more knowledge of the problems caused by coal. Once they have this knowledge, they will be more motivated to create change.
Caroline: How do you think communities can play a role in reducing China’s coal use?
Qingwei: Any change needs a motivating force. To change from dirty energy to clean energy, we need to persuade the coal companies to invest in cleaner energy. I think community groups can create such political pressure based on their need for clean air and clean water. As a first step, communities can push for greater government transparency of energy policies, and pollution sources, by using China’s information disclosure laws.
Caroline: What are you looking to accomplish at Pacific Environment in the next 12 months?
Qingwei: When I joined Pacific Environment, I already knew we had a very good network of grassroots partner organizations in China. So my role is to help build the network’s capacity to address the coal challenge. I also want to grow this network, because the challenge is huge and requires the efforts of a wide range of NGOs.
Yu Lixiang asked me to meet him on a sunny afternoon in March on the banks of the Xiang River. He waited for me by a bridge where he was making a routine stop to test the water quality of the Xiang River, the main freshwater artery flowing through China’s eastern Hunan Province.
The spot Yu Lixiang and I were exploring had been selected as a monitoring point because it is near one of Changsha’s municipal drinking water inlets, and water quality is threatened by industrial pollution sources upstream. Yu Lixiang has been to this spot dozens of times to check water quality, and local fishermen seem to know him, telling him in the local Changsha dialect about changes they have observed in the river day to day.
In his fifties, Yu Lixiang jumped lightly from rock to rock along the river bank as we started the monitoring process. After snapping a few photos of the river and its surroundings, he took out test strips from his waist bag to collect data on the pH of the river. “Today the pH, at this point along the Xiang River, is 6—not bad”, Yu Lixiang said. Then he carefully recorded the findings in his notebook. (Pure water has a pH very close to 7.)
Yu Lixiang is one of a growing number of citizens who participate in volunteer networks to help clean up China’s rivers. “Teacher Yu,” as Yu Lixiang is affectionately known by his fellow volunteers, is the leader of the Changsha city team in the network known as the “Xiang River Watch.”
The members of Xiang River Watch all share the same dream: that one day all rivers in Hunan Province can be cleaned up and protected. The network was founded by Pacific Environment’s partner Green Hunan three years ago to mobilize citizens from all walks of life to watchdog water pollution—a grave environmental threat in China.
Today, 92 volunteers participate in Xiang River Watch’s local teams to patrol the main stem and the eight major tributaries of the Xiang River every day. On average, the teams find and investigate eight pollution incidents per week.
Over the past three years, the Changsha city team alone has reported over 600 pollution violations on Weibo.com, a popular social networking site used by an increasing number of Chinese citizens to bring attention to environmental problems. Last year, Green Hunan and Xiang River Watch volunteers not only found and reported hundreds of polluters, they also successfully pushed for cleanup of over 30 individual pollution sources through closure of polluting factories or installments of new pollution control technologies.
In 2010, Yu Lixiang read about Green Hunan and Xiang River Watch in a newspaper and immediately decided to volunteer. He told me that his ancestors settled along the banks of the Xiang River hundreds of years ago. And he pointed out that locals throughout water-rich southern China often call the great rivers that flow by their doors “Mother River,” and that’s how the Xiang River is known in this part of Hunan. Yu Lixiang traces his love of rivers back to his childhood. He was born by the Xiang River, his “Mother River,” and that’s why he feels a natural connection with the river. Standing by the river, he smiled as he quoted one of Confucius’s sayings to me, “The wise love water!”
When Yu Lixiang was young, he went swimming in the Xiang River every summer. At that time, the river was clean and beautiful. But in the 1990s—a time of economic boom throughout China—the river started to fill with trash and began to smell bad. That’s when Yu Lixiang had to give up swimming and started walking along the river instead.
Protecting the water and being close to the river was already his way of life, so it wasn’t surprising that he decided to join Green Hunan as a volunteer. “If there had been an environmental group earlier, I would have joined earlier,” he said.
But volunteer work is not without challenges for Yu Lixiang. Because most volunteers are much younger, he used to worry about fitting in. It also took him a while to become familiar with social media, which the volunteers use to publicize their pollution findings. But now he takes the lead in reporting his team’s results online.
Speaking about his team’s next challenges, Yu Lixiang told me about a new wastewater treatment plant being installed nearby. “I plan to push for better disclosure of information about its operations,” he said. Right now, 300,000 tons of wastewater are discharged into the Xiang River without treatment every day. Yu Lixiang believes that once the new treatment plant is in operation, it will take some close monitoring of the treated water to ensure that the water is actually pollution-free before it enters the Xiang River.
Yu Lixiang wants to inspire more people to join a river monitoring network and also to expand his own efforts; this summer, he plans to carry out field investigations at the headwaters of tributaries of the Xiang River. His personal dream is to one day go and see the famed Sanjiangyuan region, where China’s other great rivers—the Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow—originate high in the Tibetan plateau.
Thanks to Yu Lixiang and many others like him, the Xiang River and other rivers throughout China are getting a second chance. Pacific Environment is helping grassroots environmental groups across China grow networks of citizen monitors that are ever more effective at stopping polluters and cleaning up rivers.
First published in The Huffington Post
This week, The Nation published an exposé revealing shocking new details about ExxonMobil’s deadly natural gas pipeline project in Papua New Guinea. Reporter Ian Shearn reveals new allegations that the ExxonMobil subsidiary operating the project was aware that poor management practices at a local quarry could cause a landslide. Then, on January 24, 2012, a massive landslide originated at the quarry and killed 27 local villagers. Shearn reports a supply road was quickly reconstructed over the landslide — directly over the buried bodies — under the protection of Exxon-funded mobile security forces sent to defend the project from angry villagers. The Huffington Post has released an accompanying documentary video with stunning footage from the scene of devastation and surrounding community.
In 2009, an obscure U.S. Government trade promotion agency, the Export-Import Bank, provided a $3 billion loan (yes, that’s billion) for the Papua New Guinea LNG project. Most Americans have never heard of the federal Export-Import Bank. Even fewer know that it doles out billions of dollars in corporate welfare to dangerous fossil fuel projects each year, harming local communities while worsening the global climate crisis with rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Esso Highlands Limited, an ExxonMobil subsidiary, operated the poorly-managed quarry from which the deadly landslide originated. Exxon denies that EHL is responsible, claiming that heavy rainfall caused the landslide. However, Reuters reported in 2012 that prior to the accident an independent consultant to the Export-Import Bank reported that “[t]he overall impression…is that incidents and situations have developed because the project has circumvented correct procedures in the interest of schedule…” Now, Shearn reports that an engineer working on the quarry warned EHL managers that the “quarry was risky and should be shut down immediately…I thought the quarry could collapse.”
Equally shocking, a local project watchdog, LNG Watch Papua New Guinea, reported that local villagers struggled to retrieve victims following the landslide, sometimes digging by hand. At the same time, under the protection of notorious mobile police squads, a supply road that is essential to project construction was rebuilt over the landslide directly above the buried bodies. As a result, none of the 27 missing villagers were ever recovered.
The exposé reports many incidents of violence and abuse that mobile police squads inflicted upon people in the community who protested the LNG project. According to a police superintendent and other well-placed sourced cited in the article, ExxonMobil tried to ensure project security by paying for weapons and covering other expenses of these mobile police squads, which local and international advocacy groups have linked to numerous human rights abuses elsewhere in the country.
Three environment and development groups, Pacific Environment, Jubilee Australia and International Accountability Project, warned Export-Import Bank officials about the Papua New Guinea LNG project’s severe environmental, social, and human rights impacts before and after the U.S. Government approved the $3 billion loan. The bank ignored our concerns. What’s more, in 2013, Wikileaks revealed that in response to this criticism, the Texas-based private security firm Stratfor compiled a secret dossier on Pacific Environment, BankTrack and other project critics. It appears that Stratfor’s client may have been Exxon, since the dossier describes the critics’ charges as similar to “complaints about [ExxonMobil's] Chad-Cameroon Pipeline, and many other development projects, with some additional similarities to longstanding concerns about ExxonMobil operations in Aceh.”
The Export-Import Bank claims that if the U.S. does not support such dirty and deadly projects, then other governments will do so without applying the robust environmental, social and human rights safeguards that the U.S. government supposedly insists upon. In addition to Export-Import Bank’s own environmental and social policies, the agency is required to receive a human rights clearance from the State Department for large projects like the Papua New Guinea LNG project. This tragedy demonstrates how miserably these safeguards have failed. And unfortunately this is not an isolated incident among Export-Import Bank’s funded projects.
An independent U.S. Government investigation — if properly conducted — would show that Papua New Guinea LNG has violated Export-Import Bank policies; and it could potentially prove that the company withheld material information from the agency. These facts, and the deadly project impacts, more than warrant that the Export-Import Bank declare the project in default and to demand immediate repayment of the $3 billion loan.
Export-Import Bank’s Chairman, Fred Hochberg, considers himself a champion of human rights. Given this project’s cruel disregard for human life, it’s time for Hochberg to step up to the plate and to withdraw his agency’s loan from ExxonMobil’s deadly Papua New Guinea LNG project.
Follow Doug Norlen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dougnorlen
With all of the negative attention Russia is receiving in the news lately, it’s easy to overlook the many inspiring people who are fighting for social and environmental justice in Russia. One such courageous activist is Suren Gazaryan, winner of a 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize for challenging government corruption and environmental degradation—at great personal risk.
Suren became a prominent leader in Russia’s growing anti-corruption movement when he documented on his blog the environmental crimes committed by corrupt government officials. Beginning in the early 2000s, mansions began to spring up in protected areas or on public lands along the Black Sea coast. Many of these homes, surrounded by armed guards, were rumored to belong to wealthy Russian oligarchs, including President Putin. Suren documented these protected area violations and brought lawsuits to stop the illegal construction. When the courts refused to act, he led direct action campaigns to block excavation equipment.
In June 2012, Suren was sentenced to three-year probation for protesting the illegal seizure of protected lands for one of these mansions. A couple of months later, Russian authorities claimed in a second criminal case that he threatened to kill security guards at another illegal construction site. Facing prison for these trumped up charges, Suren fled to seek political asylum in Estonia. His friend and colleague, Yevgeny Vitishko, Yvegeny disappeared into Russia’s penal system on the same politically motivated charges Russian authorities levelled against Suren.
Suren is a uniquely Russian environmentalist. He combines great knowledge of that country’s byzantine legal system with a talent for public organizing, and a scientist’s knowledge of local flora and fauna. As a zoologist and a member of Environmental Watch on North Caucasus’ Council, he recognizes the value and uniqueness of the forests, beaches, and resident wildlife in his home of Krasnodar—a region located on Russia’s Black Sea coast. To protect these vulnerable areas, he created the Utrish Nature Reserve in 2009, conserving a unique stretch of Black Sea coast and nearby pistachio forest. In 2012, he led a campaign that protested the construction for the Sochi Olympic sites in protected wilderness areas, which called international attention to the event as the most environmentally destructive modern-day Olympics.
Today, Suren will receive his award at the Goldman Environmental Prize eremony held in San Francisco. It recognizes his accomplishments in protecting valuable forests and coastland and his tireless efforts to address the corruption that is at the root of so much environmental destruction in Russia. As the country continues to struggle with authoritarianism and corruption, people like Suren, who believe in social equality and environmental justice, represent a cleaner, just, and more prosperous future.
I am proud that Pacific Environment supported Suren’s candidacy for the Goldman Prize. Suren has demonstrated the power of citizen mobilization in social and environmental change. We at Pacific Environment congratulate Suren on all he has accomplished. But, as Suren himself says, there is much work left to be done.
For generations, indigenous groups have been battling governments to protect their sacred lands. Danil Mamyev, a Pacific Environment partner and founder of the Uch-Enmek Nature Park in Russia’s Altai region, and Caleen Sisk, chief of the Winnemum Wintu tribe in northern California, are the key figures in a new documentary by Sacred Lands Film Project. Standing on Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Tourists is a moving portrait of Danil’s and Chief Sisk’s struggles to protect their ancestral lands from destruction.
Although they live thousands of miles apart, Danil and Chief Sisk find common cause in their drive to preserve cultural traditions by protecting their ancestral lands. In Altai, Danil founded Uch-Enmek Park as a place where Altaians can practice shamanistic traditions and rituals in an untouched landscape that includes a sacred mountain. In California, Chief Sisk is leading the Winnemum Wintu to defend ritual sites along the McCloud River, in northern California, from inundation by the Shasta Dam.
Danil and Chief Sisk emphasize the important role that land plays in traditional religious and spiritual beliefs. Danil noted that in Russia, offensive behavior in a church can lead to social condemnation and even legal punishment, but no such provisions exist for the protection of places that are holy to the Altaian people. In the film’s most emotional moment, Chief Sisk visits a spring with deep spiritual significance to the Winnemum people. For the first time in historic memory, it has run dry as a result of climate change and poor water management by California’s government. Chief Sisk’s pain is palpable as she digs for water and finds only gravel in the spring’s basin.
As I watched the film, I realized how much the preservation of sacred lands will soon become important to everyone. Today, Altaians must contend with tourists who take bus tours to local burial grounds and climb sacred mountains. The Winnemum have watched most of their tribal lands drown under the artificial Shasta Lake. But as climate change alters local landscapes and creates greater demand for scarce resources, we may have to make similar sacrifices, surrendering local lakes to irrigate crops, building homes atop once protected parks, and cutting roads through forests.
But there are less drastic measures we can take right now. In Altai, local people have begun installing solar and small-scale hydropower generators in remote villages. This saves them the cost of expensive imported diesel and obviates the need for construction of power plants and transmission lines. It’s a win-win for local people. They preserve the land they depend upon for grazing, hunting, and fishing and save money on fuel costs. Just as indigenous peoples recognized the value of protecting sacred natural places long before the invention of national parks, they are now demonstrating the importance of sustainability. Will we listen before it’s too late?
Air pollution is strongly linked to premature death in China. According to a study by the World Health Organization, it contributed to some 1.2 million deaths in 2010. The country’s top officials have pledged to declare a war on smog. Yet coal, the main culprit in this tragedy, still rules China’s energy sector.
In March 2014, we invited a group of local environmental organizations to a training that kicks off our new project to address coal pollution in China. The event, co-hosted by Waterkeeper Alliance and Green Hanjiang, was the first in a series of workshops that will help local activists reduce reliance on dirty energy and improve air quality in their communities.
We gathered in Xiangyang, a mid-sized city in western Hubei Province on the banks of the Han River. Like most cities in China, Xiangyang is covered by a grey haze of pollution most days of the year. But unlike in most cities, the river that flows through the heart of Xiangyang is actually safe for fishing and swimming. This is partly due to the event’s co-host Green Hanjiang, which has been working with city residents to stop water pollution for more than 10 years.
Grassroots environmental groups like Green Hanjiang have come a long way. Only 10 years ago, the few local groups that existed mainly focused on education about the environment. Now, hundreds of local groups do hands-on work that cleans up industrial pollution and improves government enforcement of China’s environmental laws.
While Pacific Environment’s partners on the ground in China are excelling at stopping industrial polluters in their cities, few of them are actively challenging pollution caused by the energy sector. As the public’s concern about air pollution in China grows, citizens need to begin to connect the dots between dirty air and coal. Our meeting helped close this information gap and provided participants with hard facts on coal’s harmful impacts on water quality, air quality, and people’s health.
Our workshop also demonstrated how China’s current energy policies support increased expansion in coal mining and processing. And we highlighted the heavy price the country and its people pay for its continued reliance on coal as a major source of energy: rising amounts of dangerous toxins in water and air that harm people, wildlife, and ecosystems.
The harmful impacts of coal are indisputable. But how to decrease China’s reliance on coal is a more complex issue. Groups like NRDC have focused on pushing for a national coal cap, while other groups, including Greenpeace, have sought to mobilize public opinion against coal and work with Beijing policy makers to highlight the natural limitations to coal industry growth—like limitations on water resources needed to process coal in many of the planned coal base regions. Beijing’s Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, meanwhile, is targeting one of the biggest consumers of coal—the cement industry in China—which produces over half of the world’s cement and accounts for some 30% of China’s industrial emissions.
Developing winning strategies at the local level is a key task for Pacific Environment and our partners, and the Xiangyang meeting was a critical first step in this process. Our effort will complement national policy efforts by ensuring that local environmental groups are able to enforce in their communities existing clean air policies and other top-down directives coming from Beijing.
We already fight industrial water pollution very successfully, and together with our partners we can also help reduce air pollution across cities in China and decrease the country’s overall reliance on coal for its energy needs.
First published in the Huffington Post
On March 25, 2014, my Huffington Post blog, Will the U.S. Fund Russian Gas Exports?, reported on the U.S. Government’s consideration of funding for the enormous and environmentally harmful Yamal liquid natural gas (Yamal LNG) export project in the Russian Arctic. I questioned whether the U.S. government should subsidize a Russian gas export project when the Kremlin is known to use gas exports as a geopolitical weapon, or fund a project co-owned by Gennady Timchenko, an oil and gas baron, crony of President Putin, and one of the political figures placed under U.S. sanctions. A day later, Daniel Reilly, a public relations official at the U.S. Government’s Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank) asked me to update my blog with the following clarification:
“Ex-Im Bank has not provided any support for the Yamal LNG project. The Bank simply received an application last year to support exports of U.S. goods as one of many lenders to the project, and we have suspended it subject to any further developments—even though the company ownership percentage does not rise to the level of the sanctions criteria.”
This is welcome news. But, to my knowledge, Ex-Im Bank has not yet made any other public statement on the suspension, and as of today, the agency website still lists the project as pending.
This also raises the question why Ex-Im Bank considered financing Yamal LNG in the first place. Ex-Im Bank first announced Yamal as a pending project in November 2013, the same month that the Kremlin-backed Ukranian government used violence against tens of thousands of demonstrators, and many years after Russia’s use of gas exports as a geopolitical weapon began.
It is time that Ex-Im Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg speak out and let the public know exactly where Ex-Im Bank stands on this issue.
Follow Doug Norlen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dougnorlen
This year’s traditional Iditarod dog sled race began, as usual, with great excitement along the snowy streets of my hometown, Anchorage, Alaska. Dogs yelped and cried, straining their harnesses, eager to leap into the air and run. Meanwhile, we Alaskans, dressed in bright, traditional parkas, were packed tightly on the sidewalks surrounding the staging areas. But there was another presence in the crowd—a sea of people carrying bags emblazoned in red with the words “ExxonMobil” and handing out promotional tchotchkes.
We were celebrating this Iditarod a few weeks before the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest environmental disasters of all time: the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This was one of the biggest oil disasters in history and spilled over 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound—covering 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean. It wiped out sea otter populations, a unique pod of killer whales, entire herring and crab populations, and tens of thousands of birds.
Watching Exxon’s commercial fanfare at this year’s Iditarod, I could not help but think, “Are we all gripped by collective amnesia?” How could we forget that after creating the disaster in the first place, Exxon compounded the damage by spraying tons of deadly chemicals along our beaches to break up the oil? (Coincidentally, the company also produced these chemical dispersants and profited heavily from using them in its “clean up.”) How could we not remember that Exxon then went to the courts to avoid paying compensation and damages to fishermen and communities who suffered greatly from the loss of livelihoods and subsistence resources? Using a popular tactic from the corporate playbook, Exxon made sure that the lawsuits dragged on for so long that many of the fishermen died before ever receiving a dime.
Today, oil can still be found on some of Prince Williams Sound’s beaches, and some critical fish and wildlife populations have not yet recovered—and may never recover. But if nothing else, at least now the region and its people are better prepared to minimize, though not eliminate, the risks posed by shipping crude oil through this unique, and extremely fragile, marine environment.
Citizen monitoring groups were established in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. More tug boats and oil spill recovery gear have been put in place. Satellites now track vessels.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for oil companies planning to drill for oil in Arctic waters or commercial ships traveling through the Arctic.
Last year, Shell’s foray into Arctic exploratory drilling was a disaster. The company breached numerous environmental, health, and safety regulations. And eventually, a federal court decided that Shell’s permits were granted prematurely and illegally. Ridiculously, the company publicly blamed its woes largely on “the weather”—not its incompetence.
Still, Shell does have a point when it talks about the weather. The Arctic presents oil drillers with severe weather problems that include extreme cold temperatures and thick ice slabs that can crush vessels and damage or sink platforms. In addition, during certain times of the year, vast cyclones rage across the region, creating a perfect storm for the loss of lives and potential oil spill disasters—the likes of which we have never seen, and hopefully never will see.
The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum comprised of the world’s eight Arctic nations, explicitly stated that the biggest threat to the Arctic is an oil spill similar to the Exxon Valdez disaster because water currents would carry the oil above and below the ice across vast distances. This could ultimately result in a total ecosystem collapse because the Arctic, while bountiful in marine life and nutrients, is home to fewer species than oceans further south. Predator species often rely on only one or two prey species for survival, so if one species is wiped out, the entire ecological chain could unravel. The Arctic truly is one of the most vulnerable places on our planet.
Perhaps in the future measures will be developed that reduce the risks oil poses to the fragile Arctic. Vessels may be required to operate on lighter fuels that simply evaporate instead of heavy fuel oil, which tends to persist in the environment. The oil and shipping industry may develop new technologies to minimize risk.
But today an oil spill would still threaten the very survival of the Arctic. And if we don’t admit this, then we have not learned a thing from the Exxon Valdez disaster.
First published in the Huffington Post
As the geopolitical crisis in Ukraine grows, Western governments are talking tough about sanctions against Russia. President Obama and the European Union have now leveled sanctions against Russian and Crimean political figures and a bank, but not yet against other companies. As Rachel Maddow points out, with these sanctions, the United States and European Union fired the first economic shots in a larger escalation of sanctions that could be leveled at companies like Exxon and Rosneft — which coincidentally have a massive joint venture underway that includes terribly harmful fossil fuel projects in Russia’s environmentally sensitive Arctic region.
Given Russia’s use of natural gas exports to bully Ukraine and Western Europe in the current crisis, sanctions should be expanded to include companies working in Russia’s oil and gas export sector. Yet, so far, Western governments have not issued sanctions against oil and gas exporting companies in Russia, likely due to lobbying by politically powerful Western oil and gas companies that are involved in these projects.
What’s worse, the U.S. is even considering providing federal subsidies for a massive expansion of the Russian oil and gas export sector. The U.S. government’s largest export promotion agency, the Export-Import Bank is actively considering financing the enormous Yamal Liquid Natural Gas (Yamal LNG) export project in Northwest Siberia–an enormously harmful fossil fuel scheme led by Russia’s Novatek and France’s Total companies. Gennady Timchenko, one of the people that Obama has sanctioned, is a co-owner in Novatek. The project threatens Russia’s ecologically delicate Arctic region and is drawing vocal opposition from Russian and international environmental groups.
The amount of U.S. government financing sought for Yamal LNG has not been publicly revealed, but it is likely not a trivial amount: Export-Import Bank financing for three recent LNG projects has totaled nearly $8 billion.
In addition to being recipients of wasteful federal subsidies, these LNG projects are incredibly harmful to the environment, local communities and the global climate. Two of the projects are damaging Australia’s stunning Great Barrier Reef and have drawn environmental opposition and a lawsuit against the Export-Import Bank. A third LNG project in Papua New Guinea — led by ExxonMobil — has sliced gas pipelines through priceless tropical forests and sparked violent conflicts between tribal communities and the company.
But a different course of action by the U.S. Government is possible. Export-Import Bank and other Western public finance institutions have withheld financing for Russian oil and gas projects based on a combination of political and environmental concerns in the past. Between 2003 and 2007, the enormous sub-Arctic Sakhalin II oil and gas project in the Russian Far East sought billions of dollars in financing from the Export-Import Bank, the U.K. government, and the multilateral European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. However, these government finance institutions balked at funding the project due to irreconcilable environmental concerns. Eventually, they walked away completely after the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, grabbed a controlling share in the project in a way that struck many Western governments as quasi expropriation.
As an interesting historical note, the Export-Import Bank was established in 1934 to lend to the Soviet Union, but ultimately didn’t do so due to unpaid war debts. Soon after, a reconstituted Export-Import Bank was established to lend to Cuba and “any part of the world except Russia.”
Let’s hope that the Obama administration will pull the plug on public financing for Yamal LNG — a project that’s bad for the Arctic and for regional security, instead of bending to the will of dirty fossil fuel bullies in the United States, Russia, and beyond.
Follow Doug Norlen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dougnorlen