“The Wise Love Water”: A Day in the Life of a River Volunteer in China

 

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.

Yu Lixiang, of Xiang River Watch, preparing to take a water sample of the Xiang River in Hunan Province.

River monitor Yu Lixiang is preparing to take a water sample of the Xiang River near Hunan’s provincial capital Changsha.

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.)

River monitor Yu Lixiang is testing the water quality of the Xiang River near Hunan’s provincial capital Changsha with a simple pH testing kit that is used by thousands of volunteers across China to identify pollution and pressure governments and businesses to clean up their act.

Yu Lixiang is testing the water quality of the Xiang River with a simple pH testing kit that is used by thousands of volunteers across China to identify river pollution and pressure governments and businesses to clean up their act.

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.

River monitoring volunteers use Weibo.com to publicize pollution problems. This post shows untreated construction wastewater entering the Xiang River near Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in southeastern China.

River monitoring volunteers use Weibo.com to publicize pollution problems. This post shows untreated construction wastewater entering the Xiang River near Changsha.

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.

Posted in China, Civil Society, Communities, Freshwater, Grassroots Activism, Rivers, Water | Comments Off

U.S. Should Pull Funding From Exxon’s Deadly Pipeline Project

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.”

 

A massive landslide, which originated from an unstable quarry, owned by ExxonMobil and known to be unsafe, killed 27 people in Papua New Guinea.

A massive landslide, which originated from an unstable quarry, owned by ExxonMobil and known to be unsafe, killed 27 people in Papua New Guinea.

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

Posted in Climate Change, Communities, Energy, Export Credit Agencies, Finance, Global, Liquefied Natural Gas, Natural Gas, Responsible Finance, Sustainable Development | Comments Off

2014 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

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 Gazaryan is a winner of the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize for his courageous efforts to stop government corruption and environmental degradation in Russia

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.

 

Posted in Biodiversity, Civil Society, Communities, Forests, Global, Grassroots Activism, Russia, Russia Community Partners, Russian Far East, Uncategorized | Comments Off

Standing on Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Tourists

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.

Indigenous peoples in Altai have a spiritual connection to the natural world

Indigenous peoples in Altai have a spiritual connection to the natural world

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.

The Winnemum Wintu of northern California are battling the California government to protect their ancestral lands from flooding caused by the Shasta Dam.

The Winnemum Wintu of northern California are battling the California government to protect their ancestral lands from flooding caused by the Shasta Dam.

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?

Posted in Altai, California, Civil Society, Climate Change, Communities, Global, Russia, Russian Far East, Sustainable Development, Water | Comments Off

Cleaner Energy for Cleaner Air in China

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.

Participants of the Coal Kick-Off Meeting toured the Han River on Green Hanjiang’s Riverkeeper Boat to learn how grassroots activism has helped protect the river from industrial pollution.

Participants toured the Han River on Green Hanjiang’s Riverkeeper Boat to learn how grassroots activism has helped protect the river from industrial pollution.

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.

A coal power plant on the banks of the Han River in Xiangyang. China’s current energy plan calls for increased use of coal energy, which will worsen air quality and increase environmental and health problems.

A coal power plant on the banks of the Han River in Xiangyang.

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.

Posted in Capacity-Building, China, Civil Society, Coal, Communities, Energy, Grassroots Activism, Sustainable Development, Water | Comments Off

Update: U.S. Government Suspends Consideration of Funding for Yamal LNG

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.

The U.S. began consideration to fund Yamal LNG back in November 2013 and the Ex-Im Bank still lists the project as "pending".

The U.S. began consideration to fund Yamal LNG back in November 2013 and the Ex-Im Bank 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

Posted in Energy, Export Credit Agencies, Finance, Global, Liquefied Natural Gas, Policy, Responsible Finance, Russia, Russian Far East, Sustainable Development, Uncategorized | Comments Off

25 Years Later: Did We Learn Anything from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

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.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 covered 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean and is one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters in history.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 covered 1,300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean and is one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters in history.

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.

Disaster relief crews spent countless hours cleaning up the 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Prince William Sound, some of which still remains today.

Disaster relief crews spent countless hours cleaning up the 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Prince William Sound, some of which still remains today.

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.

Posted in Alaska, Arctic, Biodiversity, Energy, Fisheries, Marine, Oceans, Water | Comments Off

Will the U.S. Fund Russian Gas Exports?

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 U.S. Export-Import Bank is considering financing the Yamal Liquid Natural Gas export project in Northwest Siberia, a environmentally devastating fossil fuel scheme.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank is considering financing the Yamal Liquid Natural Gas export project in Northwest Siberia, a environmentally devastating fossil fuel scheme.

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.

The U.S. pulled out of financing Sakhalin II oil and gas project, lead by Russian gas giant Gazprom, once it learned of its harmful environmental impact.

The U.S. pulled out of financing Sakhalin II oil and gas project, lead by Russian gas giant Gazprom, once it learned of its harmful environmental impact.

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

Posted in Energy, Export Credit Agencies, Finance, Global, Grassroots Activism, Liquefied Natural Gas, Policy, Responsible Finance, Russia | Comments Off

Russia Celebrates International Day of Rivers

First published on Rivers without Boundaries

On March 14, 2014, at public hearings in the town of Mogocha, located in Zabaikalsky Province in eastern Russia near the border of China, local people endorsed an ambitious plan to develop a nature reserve on 330,000 hectares.

This protected area is being designed to safeguard the upper flow of the Amur River and valleys of its two principal sources: the Shilka River and the Argun River.

This area is the symbolic origin of the Amur – the last great free-flowing river that empties from Eurasia into the Pacific some 3000 kilometers downstream. The Argun (Erguna) and Amur (Heilongjiang) Rivers form the Sino-Russian border for almost 3000 kilometers. The Amur river is an important migration route for fish such as endemic Kaluga Sturgeon (Huso davhuricus) which may reach 4 meter length and weigh more than 1000 kg. This river valley is a globally significant biogeographic corridor that allows exchange between far eastern and Siberian fauna and flora. Locals also use the river valley for recreation, shipping, fishing, and hunting.

The Amur River creates the border between China and Russia and is home to diverse flora and fauna.

The Amur River creates the border between China and Russia and is home to diverse flora and fauna.

Two years ago, Russian En+ Group signed an agreement with China Yangtze Power Co. to develop new hydropower plants, one of which was proposed at the lower Shilka River and that resulted in continued public protests throughout the Amur River Basin for which the Shilka is the primary source. In addition, several years ago, Chinese Xin Ban Guoji Company from Heilongjiang Province began construction of a pulp mill nearby on the Amazar River, which is the large left-bank tributary of the Amur. This presented a grave threat both for the river and for the surrounding forests, because the company rented almost all remaining forests— adding up to 1 million hectares in the Mogocha district of Zabaikalsky Province.

Local people hope that establishment of the new nature reserve will protect the river valleys from logging and pulp-mill impacts and prevent construction of the hydropower dam. Their main message to the Zabaikalsky Provincial Government, which sponsors the development of  this nature reserve and opposes construction of large hydropower plants, is to expand the new protected area as much as possible safeguarding resources crucial for sustainable development and well-being of local people. The nature reserve was planned and designed on the initiative of Mogocha district administration with support from local scientists, provincial government, WWF Amur Branch and Rivers without Boundaries (RwB). When the hearings are over, documentation has to be prepared so that the provincial government can complete the classification process of the protected area.

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The new nature reserve will protect the Amur River Basin from man-made destruction, including logging, pulp-mill impacts, and the creation of hydropower dams

In addition, 20 Russian environmental groups united by the Rivers without Boundaries Coalition (RwB) signed a petition addressing the Russian government’s questioning of the feasibility of a grand plan to control Amur River floods by building multiple dams on its tributaries (including Shilka River). Such a plan was proposed by President Putin in the wake of a large flood that hit the Amur in summer 2013. However, the real motive behind it is to make use of public money to support development of export-oriented commercial hydropower.

The petition shows that “flood-control hydropower” is a controversial undertaking, which is hardly justifiable on economic and environmental grounds. Even the Russian Ministry of Energy publicly expressed doubts that these dams are feasible unless Chinese investors pay for their construction and guarantee buying generated electricity for a fair price.

RwB and its allies suggest considering an alternative comprehensive plan focused on investment into climate adaptation and modernization of settlements in the Amur river valley, which will guarantee improvements for local people and drastically reduce losses from inevitable future floods. Such measures cost less and could be implemented much faster than dam building.

Environmental groups urge the Russian government to use their recommendations to revise the current approach and make the resulting “anti-flood program” subject to public hearings and strategic environmental assessment.

On the 17th International Day of Action for Rivers, Rivers without Boundaries Coalition (RwB) congratulates friends and colleagues who protect other rivers around the world, and hopes that our efforts will save them from destruction!!!

Posted in Biodiversity, Civil Society, Communities, Fisheries, Forests, Freshwater, Grassroots Activism, Rivers, Russia, Water | Comments Off

Taking Polluters to Court in China: A New Tool Emerges

Coauthored by Kristen McDonald and Alex Levinson

What do you do when all else fails to stop a polluter in China?

Increasingly, local communities impacted by pollution are turning to the courts to settle disputes.  Pacific Environment helps local environmental groups support pollution victims in their communities, while also giving these local leaders the tools they need to participate in citizen enforcement of China’s environmental laws. These types of citizen enforcement activities are routine in the United States but quite novel and untested in China.

China interns

Pacific Environment’s 2013 Rule of Law Project interns (pictured here) are helping environmental groups across China use legal tools to stop polluters and help pollution victims.

Here is a short overview of the current state of environmental public interest law in China and the role local groups play in advancing environmental justice.

China’s Environmental Courts

The opening of regional environmental courts in the past several years is a positive sign of changing attitudes about enforcement of environmental laws in China. Between 2007 and 2012, more than 60 environmental courts opened, and the most active of these courts have heard hundreds of cases.

Rachel Stern, author of a recent book on environmental litigation in China, notes that once a case reaches court, it has about a 50% chance of providing the victims with some kind of compensation. The number of environmental lawsuits in China increased over the past decade, but Stern notes that the reasons are unclear. The increased use of courts could mirror the devastating increase in pollution or the opening of new regional environmental courts and a corresponding willingness of Chinese authorities to allow a certain level of citizen enforcement.  Even though this is a huge step for the environmental movement in China, environmental courts have yet to openly show they have teeth. For example, they still have not accepted any cases against the largest companies and most important polluters.  

Public Interest Lawsuits

In the United States, public interest environmental lawsuits are part of the fabric of our environmental protection system. In China, the vast majority of environmental suits are personal injury or “tort” cases. These kinds of cases can only be brought by a victim directly injured by, for instance, a factory spill, and the victim carries the difficult and expensive burden of proof to establish that the individual factory’s actions directly caused her injury. Suffice it to say, most victims in China lack the resources to pursue these cases in court.

But times are changing. By 2011, some 15 public interest cases had been brought to environmental courts by public entities and municipal governments. In 2012, two environmental organizations in China successfully brought the first public interest environmental law caseby independent citizen groups, suing two companies in Yunnan for spilling 5,000 tons of toxic cadmium waste. The case was widely reported in China and elsewhere, but the lawsuit has not yet resulted in compensation for the pollution victims or any punishment for the mining companies—in part because the environmental groups cannot afford an expert appraisal of the extent of the damage.

The Role of Citizens

While major cases against heavy polluters, such as the cadmium case, have not yet succeeded, Chinese citizen organizations have won cases establishing important precedents for the right of citizens to information—a core element of any system of public participation. Last year, Pacific Environment’s partner Green Anhui won a case against the city of Anqing , which refused to release environmental information the group had requested. This is one of the first cases in the nation that demonstrates that China’s open information laws will be enforced— at least by some courts.

With the help of a Rule of Law Project intern, Pacific Environment’s partner, Green Anhui, with the won a precedent-setting case against city of Anqing that forced the city to release environmental information that it had  previously refused to provide to the group.

With the help of a Rule of Law Project intern, Pacific Environment’s partner, Green Anhui, with the won a precedent-setting case against city of Anqing that forced the city to release environmental information that it had previously refused to provide to the group.

But there are countervailing winds. Pending revisions to China’s environmental laws by the government threaten to weaken citizen enforcement of environmental laws in court by local environmental organizations. This move has generated widespread criticism because it will strip most environmental organizations of their right to bring public interest citizen suits to court.

Which Way?

In economically thriving but heavily polluted China, the need for and popularity of legal remedies for environmental problems is dramatically increasing. Yet, the institutional and legal structures necessary for a robust use of courts as venues for environmental justice are not well established.

Pacific Environment and our environmental partners in cities across China, are exploring what the current limits are. In collaboration with Ocean University’s School of Law and Policy, our Rule of Law Project pairs graduate students with three of our partner organizations: Green Anhui in Hefei Province, Green Stone in Nanjing, and Green Camel Bell in Lanzhou. Some students will work directly on environmental law cases, while others will provide partners with improved legal tools. For example, Green Stone’s intern will help establish stronger information sharing systems that will allow local citizens to better participate in environmental reviews.  Green Camel Bell’s intern will review and compare environmental laws and enforcement in Lanzhou city with national standards to set the stage for local advocacy efforts.

Through training the next generation of China’s public interest lawyers, and connecting them with their future clients—citizen groups in communities across China—we help build strong voices for a robust environmental law system in years to come.

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