Wednesday, January 2, 2013

'Disgusting': Families of massacre victims boycott Colorado theater reopening event

Jonathan Castner / AFP - Getty Images file
The scene in front of the Aurora, Colo., theater on July 20 where a gunman opened fire during the opening of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises."
Calling it a “disgusting offer” and a “thinly veiled publicity ploy,” some victims’ families of the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre are outraged that the movie house chain's owner would invite them to a special event marking the reopening of the place where 12 movie-goers were killed and 58 wounded.

Cinemark CEO Tim Warner offered free tickets to an event Jan. 17 for the reconfigured Aurora Century Theatre, according to an invitation letter sent to Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan and obtained by NBC News. Warner also points out the community had requested the theater's restoration.

In addition, victims and their families were told special arrangements could be made for them to visit before the reopening, on Jan. 15 and 16.

According to the Denver Post, an email invitation was also sent through the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance. It said that counselors would be available at the event.

In response, a group of families fired back a letter of their own, blasting the invitation(below) and saying they would urge a boycott of the event on social media.

“This disgusting offer that you’d 'like to invite you and a guest to a special evening of remembrance on Thursday, January 17 at 5 PM' followed by the showing of a movie and then telling us to be sure 'to reserve our tickets' is wholly offensive to the memory of our loved ones.”

The letter says Cinemark had not reached out to families before the invitation.

"None of us received a letter of condolence or any other communication from Cinemark, but now they want us to step foot in that theater," Sandy Phillips, mother of Jessica Ghawi, told The Denver Post. Ghawi was one of the people fatally shot during the sold-out midnight showing of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" on July 20.

 “We, the families, recognize your thinly veiled publicity ploy for what it is:  A great opportunity for you to distance yourselves and divert public scrutiny from your culpability in this massacre,” the letter states.

Court date set for Colorado theater shooting suspect's biggest hearing yet

A survey conducted this summer by the city of Aurora found the majority of residents in favor of having the theater reopened, the Post reported. It was remade into an XD theater with wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor screen.

Several victims’ families have sued Cinemark USA, alleging impr
oper security at the theater on the night of the massacre.
A spokeswoman for Cinemark told NBC News the theater would have no immediate comment on the boycott.

James Holmes, a 25-year-old former neuroscience graduate student, is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder in the shootings. On Wednesday prosecutors said they would make public evidence in the case for the first time in a hearing next week.

At previous hearings, a defense lawyer has said Holmes suffered from an unspecified mental illness.

Families of Victims Massacred at Aurora Cinemark Theater Reject Cinemark USA’s Offer

The family members of loved ones murdered sent this letter to Cinemark USA:

To the Management of Cinemark USA, Inc.:
During the holiday we didn’t think anyone or anything could make our grief worse but you, Cinemark, have managed to do just that by sending us an invitation two days after Christmas inviting us to attend the re-opening of your theater in Aurora where our loved ones were massacred. Thanks for making what is a very difficult holiday season that much more difficult. Timing is everything and yours is awful.

You (Cinemark) has shown, and continues to show, ZERO compassion to the families of the victims whose loved ones were killed in their theater. You, Cinemark, have never once reached out to the families to offer condolences.

This disgusting offer that you’d “like to invite you and a guest to a special evening of remembrance on Thursday, January 17 at 5 PM” followed by the showing of a movie and then telling us to be sure “to reserve our tickets” is wholly offensive to the memory of our loved ones.

Our family members will never be on this earth with us again and a movie ticket and some token words from people who didn’t care enough to reach out to us, nor respond when we reached out to them to talk, is appalling.

You (Cinemark) refused our repeated invitations to speak parent to parent with no lawyers involved. Instead, we get invited to attend a “special evening of remembrance” at the very theater where our loved ones lay dead on the floor for over 15 hours. We would give anything to wipe the carnage of that night out of our minds’ eye. Thank you for reminding us how your quest for profits has blinded your leadership and made you so callous as to be oblivious to our mental anguish.

We, the families, recognize your thinly veiled publicity ploy for what it is: A great opportunity for you to distance yourselves and divert public scrutiny from your culpability in this massacre.

After reading our response to your ridiculously offensive invitation, you now know why we will not be attending your re-opening celebration and will be using every social media tool at our disposal to ask the other victims to ask their friends and family to honor us by boycotting the killing field of our children.

The Families of the Aurora Cinemark Theatre Massacre

Thomas Teves (father of Alex Teves)
Caren Teves (mother of Alex Teves)
Sandy Phillips (mother of Jessica Ghawi)
Lonnie Phillips (stepfather of Jessica Ghawi)
Jerri Jackson (mother of Matt McQuinn)
Greg Medek (father of Micayla Medek)
Rena Medek (mother of Micayla Medek)
Anita Busch (cousin of Greg and Micayla Medek)
Robert Wingo, (father of Rebecca Ann Wingo’s two children)
Scott Larimer (father of John Larimer)
Kathleen Larimer (mother of John Larimer)
Jessica Watts (cousin of Jonathan Blunk)
Robert Sullivan (grandfather of Veronica Moser-Sullivan)
Sue Sullivan (grandmother of Veronica Moser-Sullivan)
Cassandra Sullivan (widow of Alex Sullivan)

Study: Tar Sands Pipelines Pose Serious Risks

image of Keith Schneider
By Keith Schneider
February 16, 2011

Science & Technology Business & Politics

Tar sands oil is more corrosive than conventional crude, and pipelines carrying it will be at significantly increased risk of failure. Lara Solt

Just after dawn on July 26, 2010, homeowners along Talmadge Creek near Marshall, Michigan, awoke to the chemical stench of raw fuel. Several bolted outside and followed the sickening stink to the creek’s wooded banks and found its source: a torrent of black goo, unlike anything ever experienced in Michigan or anywhere else in the upper Midwest, heading downstream to the Kalamazoo River.

The black goo originated some 2,000 miles away, in the tar sands fields of Alberta, Canada. There, a massive extraction effort has damaged thousands of square miles of forests, polluted water supplies, and poured tens of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere each year -- all in an effort to provide a new source of transportation fuel to quench American demands, as well as alleviate concerns about reliance on oil from the Middle East and find energy sources closer to home.

What the Michigan spill revealed, however, is that an expanding constellation of processing plants, refineries, and transcontinental pipelines needed to produce and transport tar sands oil to American markets also puts communities and water supplies across the U.S. at risk. And it’s a risk that, until recently, was little known or understood by the communities that stand in harm’s way.

In a new report released today, NRDC and several partner groups demonstrate that tar sands oil is more difficult and dangerous to transport than conventional crude. Known as DilBit, short for diluted bitumen, it’s thick as peanut butter and more acidic, highly corrosive, and abrasive. Yet the NRDC report says that pipeline developers and operators are using the same designs, operating practices, and materials to transport DilBit that work for conventional crude.

REPORT: Tar Sands Pipelines Safety Risks

Those practices might have contributed to the deterioration of the steel pipeline outside of Marshall and its rupture last summer -- a disaster that’s now considered the worst oil spill in Midwest history and caused more than $500 million in damage. If changes aren’t made, the result could be more accidents, spills, and polluted waterways, says the report, which calls for a moratorium on pipeline development until stronger safety measures and regulations can be developed.

"Because people in the United States hadn't had any experience with raw tar sands oil, they didn't know how dangerous it can be," said Anthony Swift, an NRDC tar sands expert and co-author of the study, prepared with the help of two other national environmental organizations and the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit group that works with the pipeline industry to increase safety.

The Alberta tar sands conservatively contain 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That’s enough to satisfy U.S. demand at current rates of consumption -- 7 billion barrels annually -- until 2035. Energy companies say they intend to more than double production from 1.5 million barrels a day currently to more than 3 million barrels per day by 2025. But tar sands oil requires extensive processing before it can be used as transportation fuel, and Canadian refineries have reached capacity, so U.S. and European oil companies are spending $20 billion to expand and retrofit refineries in the Midwest and Texas Gulf to turn tar sands into oil.

But first, they have to get it there, which requires a costly and expansive pipeline network. During the past year, Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline developer that owns the pipe that ruptured in Michigan, opened a $1.2 billion, 1,000-mile pipeline from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. Enbridge’s main competitor, TransCanada, opened a $5 billion, 2,147-mile pipeline known as Keystone to refineries in Illinois and storage depots in Oklahoma. The company wants to build a third major pipeline, known as Keystone XL, nearly 2,000 miles from Alberta to Oklahoma and onward to the Gulf Coast, at a cost of $7 billion.

Oil companies are now shipping 500,000 barrels of DilBit daily to U.S. refineries. The peanut butter-thick substance contains 15 to 20 times higher acid concentrations than conventional crude oil, five to 10 times as much sulfur, high concentrations of chloride salts, and higher concentrations of abrasive quartz sand particles.

"This combination of chemical corrosion and physical abrasion can dramatically increase the rate of pipeline deterioration," the NRDC report says.

In order to get it to flow through pipelines, raw tar sands bitumen is diluted with natural gas condensate and then moved in heated pipelines under high pressure. The study asserts that the higher temperatures and higher internal pipeline pressures can create gas bubbles within the pipelines, deform the metal, and lead to ruptures caused by pressure spikes.

The report’s authors found convincing statistical evidence of the hazards of transporting DilBit. From 2002 to 2008, Alberta’s pipeline system, which has a longer record of transporting the raw diluted bitumen, experienced 218 spills per 10,000 miles of pipeline. That was a rate of spills from corrosion approximately 16 times greater than the 13.8 corrosion-related spills during the same period along the same length of pipeline in the U.S.

Canadian pipeline builders, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the American Petroleum Institute did not respond to repeated email and telephone messages seeking comments about the report’s findings.

But communities from Montana to Texas in the path of pipeline development are beginning to raise questions about safety. Several member of Congress, too, have expressed concern. New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank R. Lautenberg introduced a bill this month -- Pipeline Transportation Safety Improvement Act of 2011 -- that would require a full assessment of whether federal safeguards are adequate for tar sands crude.

This new activism and comes as the State Department considers TransCanada’s proposal to build Keystone XL, the first big tar sands pipeline to attract intense public scrutiny. The two earlier tar sands pipelines were quickly granted permits to cross the U.S. border with Canada during the Bush administration.

On July 16, 2010 -- just 10 days before the Kalamazoo spill -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an 18-page letter that directed the State Department to more carefully assess the considerable risks to wetlands, rivers, and communities. The proposed pipeline route crosses native prairie in Kansas and South Dakota, endangered whooping crane habitat along the Platte River in Nebraska, and runs past dozens of small towns.

The State Department is expected early this year to decide how to proceed with its environmental and safety review for Keystone XL. Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of NRDC’s International Program, who has studied tar sands issues extensively and is a recognized national expert, said she expects the State Department to undertake additional studies and open a public comment period that could last up to 90 days.

In Michigan, meanwhile, people are still contending with the consequences of last summer’s spill. Residents have filed more than 2,370 claims on everything from medical bills to hotel stays to property repairs as a result of the accident, according to company figures. A class-action lawsuit is in development. Enbridge said its cleanup costs could reach $550 million, according to Canadian press reports. All but $35 million to $45 million will be paid by its insurers. Cleanup work is continuing and, the company has bought out 71 homeowners whose property was affected.

The company repaired the rupture and reopened the pipeline in September. The Suncor refinery in Sarnia, Canada, and the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, have resumed processing DilBit into fuel.

NRDC: Dirty Fuels

Elizabeth Shope

Elizabeth Shope, an advocate in NRDC's international program, answers questions about what makes fuels like tar sands dirty, and why we're pursuing them. For more, see her Switchboard blog.

What makes a fuel "dirty?" Aren't they all used to create gasoline and diesel?

NRDC defines "dirty fuels" as tar sands, oil shale, and liquid coal, all of which are difficult and devastating to extract from the ground and also cause more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil -- both looking at their production emissions and at the full lifecycle of the fuel.

All three fuels can be turned into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and a range of other products, but not without causing tremendous air and water pollution and destruction to the earth.

Read the rest here

To the Last Drop
Residents of one Canadian town are engaged in a David and Goliath-style battle over the dirtiest oil project ever known.
Last Modified: 08 Mar 2012 09:02

Filmmakers: Niobe Thompson and Tom Radford
The small town of Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta is facing the consequences of being the first to witness the impact of the Tar Sands project, which may be the tipping point for oil development in Canada.

The local community has experienced a spike in cancer cases and dire studies have revealed the true consequences of "dirty oil".
Gripped in a Faustian pact with the American energy consumer, the Canadian government is doing everything it can to protect the dirtiest oil project ever known. In the following account, filmmaker Tom Radford describes witnessing a David and Goliath struggle.

I shot my first film, Death of a Delta, in Fort Chipewyan in 1972. I shot it with a hand crank Bolex camera with a maximum 26-second wind. I had to make sure people knew what they were talking about. There was no time for red herrings. In our new film, To the Last Drop, the latest in digital HD and Cineflex cameras capture the landscape of northern Alberta as never before.

But while technology can go through multiple revolutions in 39 years, the issue that drives both our films remains the same: the rights of downstream communities, and the need to recognise those rights, no matter how powerful their upstream neighbours.

Death of a Delta documented the fight of Fort Chipewyan to have a voice in the construction of a massive hydroelectric project on the Peace River, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. At stake was not only the survival of the oldest community in Alberta, but the protection of a World Heritage site, the Peace Athabasca Delta, a convergence of migratory flyways and the greatest concentration of waterfowl on the continent.

In the David and Goliath struggle that ensued, David won. Water was released from the dam and water levels in the Delta returned to normal. The unique ecology of the region was saved. The town survived.

Today, that same David, the collective will of the thousand residents of Fort Chipewyan, is fighting an even more imposing Goliath. The Alberta oil sands is arguably now the world's largest construction project. Its expansion will have an estimated $1.7 trillion impact on the Canadian economy over the coming decades. An area of boreal forest the size of Greece will be affected by industrial activity.

Once again the issue is water, but this time it is not just the flow of the river, but the chemicals the current may be carrying downstream from the strip mines and bitumen upgraders.
In recent years, according to the Alberta Cancer Board, Fort Chipewyan has experienced an unusually high rate of cancer. Local fishermen are finding growing numbers of deformed fish in their nets. Residents and John O'Connor, the community doctor, worry there could be a connection to the oil sands.

As they did in the 1970s, the people of Fort Chipewyan have appealed to science for help. Then it was William Fuller, a biologist from the University of Alberta, who collected the data that proved the Delta was dying. Today, it is David Schindler, the winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, and a team of international scientists conducting painstaking research to find out what is in the Athabasca River - and where it is coming from.

Alan Adam, the chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, has worked closely with Schindler. He knows that vast areas of the Delta are once again becoming impassable because of falling water levels. This means the hunting, trapping and fishing rights guaranteed to his people in Treaty 8 are worthless.

He has appealed to elders like Pat Marcel and Francois Paulette from neighbouring Fort Fitzgerald to record the changes they are seeing in the water and the wildlife. In a unique exchange, science and traditional knowledge are coming together to challenge the oil sands.

When I first arrived in Fort Chipewyan in 1972, an Indian kid was sitting on the dock singing Hank Williams' Your Cheatin' Heart. The old guitar he was playing had about three strings. One verse at a time, we recorded the song with our 26-second camera. Then we tried to get the rights. The kid was no problem, but Nashville will always be Nashville. Too bad. It would have been the perfect cover for all those years of government and industry duplicity.

These days the powers that be are beginning to listen. The recent Oilsands Advisory Panel, appointed by Jim Prentice, the former environment minister, stressed in its December 2010 report the importance of proper research and regulation. We have to know what is in the water.

Maybe David has a chance to win again. Goliath would be better for it.
Mon, 2008-02-18 10:40Terrance Berg

Report: Alberta Oil Sands Most Destructive Project on Earth

Want the facts on the Alberta Oil Sands? 

Environmental Defence has released a report calling the Alberta Oil Sands the most destructive project on Earth.

Few Canadians know that Canada is home to one of the world's largest dams and it is built to hold toxic waste from just one Tar Sands operation," Rick Smith, the executive director of Environmental Defence.

And according to the report this is just the beginning. Approvals have already been given that will double the size of existing operations and Canada's leaders have been talking with the US government to grow oil sands operations in a "short time span."

Even a former Premier of Alberta is concerned. Peter Lougheed who served as Premier from 1971 to 1985 was recently quoted on the oil sands as saying:

... it is just a moonscape. It is wrong in my judgment, a major wrong... So it is a major, major federal and provincial issue."

However, there is a silver lining in all this. A recent Canadian parliamentary committee recently stated that:

A business as usual approach to the development of the oil sands is not sustainable. The time has come to begin the transition to a clean energy future."

Here's a few facts about the Alberta Oil Sands:

  1. - Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year.
  2. - At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in ends up in tailing ponds so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing in them.
  3. - Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes in Canada.
  4. - The toxic tailing ponds are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. The ponds span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.
  5. - Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil.
  6. - The oil sands operations are the fastest growing source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas in Canada. By 2020 the oil sands will release twice the amount produced currently by all the cars and trucks in Canada.
A full copy of the Environmental Defence report is attached to the end of this post.
Desmogblog (

Top 10 Facts About the Alberta Oil Sands

1. Oil sands mining is licensed to use twice the amount of fresh water that the entire city of Calgary uses in a year. The water requirements for oil sands projects range from 2.5 to 4.0 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced.

2. At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in tailing lakes so toxic that propane cannons and floating scarecrows are used to keep ducks from landing in them.

3. A 2003 report concluded that "an accident related to the failure of one of the oil sands tailings ponds could have catastrophic impact in the aquatic ecosystem of the Mackenzie River Basin due to the size of these lakes and their proximity to the Athabasca River."

4. In April, 2008 a flock of migrating ducks landed on a tar sands toxic lake and died.

5. Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes in Canada. Natural gas requirements for the oil sands industry are projected to increase substantially during the projected period from 17 million cubic metres (0.6 billion cubic feet) per day in 2003 to a range of 40 to 45 million cubic metres (1.4 to 1.6 billion cubic) feet per day in 2015.

6. The toxic tailing lakes are considered one of the largest human-made structures in the world. The toxic lakes in Northern Alberta span 50 square kilometers and can be seen from space.

7. Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil. In 2004, oil sands production surpassed 160 000 cubic metres (one million barrels) per day; by 2015, oil sands production is expected to more than double to about 340 000 cubic metres (2.2 million barrels) per day.

8. The oil sands operations are the fastest growing source of heat-trapping greenhouse gas in Canada. By 2020 the oil sands will release twice the amount produced currently by all the cars and trucks in Canada.

9. The Alberta Oil Sands Operation are the largest single point source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

10. By 2015, the Alberta Oil Sands are expected to emit more greenhouse gases than the nation of Denmark (pop. 5.4 million).

Sources and more information on the Alberta Oil Sands:

1. Check out the Pembina Institute's Oil Sands Watch for an in-depth look at the Alberta Oil Sands.

2. Download Environmental Defence’s report (pdf) highlighting the environmental and health consequences of the Tar Sands: Canada’s Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project on Earth

3. CBC: Hundreds of ducks trapped on toxic Alberta oilsands pond

4. Boreal Songbird Initiative's Alberta Tar Sands Fact Sheet

5. Greenpeace Tar Sands Campaign

6. Stop the Tar Sands

7. Traveling Alberta (Tar Sands Vacation site)
Desmogblog (http://s.tt1mmHU)

Chinese government buys 100% of major Alberta oil sands project 
Missoula paid little attention to the immense oil sands development occurring to our north until a plan was announced to haul proportionately immense oilfield equipment through our city and county. Then the community’s focus turned not only to the Kearl Oil Module Transport project, but to the development of Canada’s vast tar sands. Or is that oil sands?

Project Overview

The Muskeg River Oil Sands site is located 70 kilometers north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Designed to mine and process 95 million tones of oil sands per year, it works in conjunction with a new upgrader to produce 150,000 barrels of bitumen per day.
The project consisted of constructing a greenfield oil sands mining and processing facility, including site development, infrastructure, ore handling, extraction, tailings, froth conditioning, solvent recovery, and storage facilities. PCL managed and supplied the equipment fleet for the project, and partnered with Fluor Constructors and Agra-Simmons to provide direct-hire construction services for the process plant and project infrastructure.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Book Cliffs area south of Vernal is proposed for the nation's first commercial tar sands mine.
Utah board OKs the nation’s first commercial tar sands project

Environment » 
Opponents claim the mine would pollute groundwater in the Book Cliffs area of eastern Utah; proponents say it is risk-free.
First Published Oct 24 2012 10:59 am • Last Updated Oct 24 2012 07:35 pm

A state panel gave a key approval Wednesday to start a tar sands mine in Utah’s wild Book Cliffs in eastern Utah.
After hearing from the company behind the project, Alberta-based U.S. Oil Sands, as well as the group that appealed the initial project approval, Moab-based Living Rivers, board members voted 9-2 to uphold the state’s previous OK of the project, the nation’s first fuel producing tar-sands mine.

Rob Dubuc, Living Rivers attorney, said: "We’re likely to appeal" in court.
Water Quality Division Director Walt Baker signed off on the proposal last year without requiring a groundwater-pollution permit. Basically, he concluded that there is no groundwater to pollute in the project site, around 213 acres in the arid high country between Vernal and Moab.
In August, Administrative Law Judge Sandra Allen agreed with Baker, and the water-quality board reviewed that conclusion on Wednesday. Darrell H. Mensel, representing recreation, and Merritt K. Frey, representing wildlife and the environment, both expressed concern about whether the permit met the strict definition of state law on groundwater, and they both voted against the administrative law judge’s finding.
But other members agreed that Living Rivers had not offered proof that the project poses any threat to groundwater.
Paul McConkie, an assistant attorney general representing the water-quality division, said the judge’s review had been painstaking and that the company would be required to begin monitoring if contamination was discovered in the future.
"If they ever do run into groundwater," he told the board, "they’ll test it."
Meanwhile, Dubuc urged caution, given that the project is the first of its kind here. "What we’re asking for is a more rigorous oversight of this mine."
Members of Utah Tar Sands Resistance attended the hearing. But, as members of the public, they were not permitted to provide input.
Raphael Cordray, a member of the group, vowed afterward to continue the fight. She said state surveys of the area show there are aquifers below the area that will be strip mined, and they should be protected.
"We knew this was going to happen," she said. "But we’re ashamed they made such an absurd ruling."
Meanwhile, the company said it hopes to be mining aroundthis time next year. Barclay E. Cuthbert, vice president of operations for U.S. Oil Sands, said his company hopes to finalize its Utah Division of Oil Gas and Mining permit in coming weeks.
That state permit application, originally submitted two years ago, also has been approved — and later appealed by Living Rivers. The mining board was waiting to see the water-quality board’s decision.
"Our board," said division director John Baza, "basically has the same decision to make."

Lionel Trepanier talks about his mock-up of the underground water system -- water that his group, Utah Tar Sands Resistence, says is in jeopardy with the approval of the PR Springs project in eastern Utah.

Utah Oil Sands Project Can Proceed Without Pollution Permit, Water Monitoring

Decision by officials sets the stage for a possible court battle over the nation's first tar sands mine in Utah's fragile Book Cliffs region.

Oct 25, 2012
Sticky bitumen oozes from a rock in a tar sands test pit on the nearly 6,000 acr  Sticky bitumen oozes from a rock in a tar sands test pit on the nearly 6,000 acres of land that U.S. Oil Sands leases in eastern Utah. Credit: David Havesmyer, InsideClimate News

Utah officials have given a Canadian company the green light to begin mining oil sands on a remote plateau in Eastern Utah without first obtaining a pollution permit or monitoring groundwater quality, an action that sets the stage for a possible court battle over the fragile region.

The board of the Utah Division of Water Quality agreed with Calgary-based U.S. Oil Sands' contention that there was little or no water in the area of the company's proposed mine site and affirmed the agency's earlier decision not to require the permits or monitoring.

The board's 9-2 vote Wednesday caps years of wrangling with the water agency over U.S. Oil Sands' proposal to open the first large-scale oil sands mine in the United States in the Book Cliffs, an area renowned for its abundant wildlife but also dotted with occasional oil and gas wells.
Two environmental groups—Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates—sought the review as part of their effort to prevent the oil industry from becoming established and opening up bigger operations in the largely unspoiled region.

John Weisheit, Living Rivers' conservation director, and Rob Dubuc, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, said they were disappointed by the decision and will likely take their objections to the project to the Utah courts. Living Rivers has dogged U.S. Oil Sands for years over its mining plans.

Click here to view a slideshow of the U.S. Oil Sands test pit in eastern Utah

Cameron Todd, U.S. Oil Sands' chief executive officer, said the company isn't concerned about a possible court fight other than the delays it might cause.
"We don't ever look at it as a fight," he said in an interview. "Rather we look at it as the company being subjected to another thorough review that will show we have a project that is of the highest industry and environmental standards."
 Todd said the water quality board's decision was "basically as expected and as supported by the evidence."

The board as well as officials of the Water Quality Division wrestled with the question of how much water is to be found in this semi-arid region, which gets an average of 12 inches of precipitation a year.

U.S. Oil Sands contended there is none.

Chris Hogle, an attorney representing the company, told the board that water quality officials and U.S. Oil Sands hydrologists had "traipsed" over the PR Spring mine site for years searching for water.

"They didn't find any," he said. "What water there is is disconnected from the mine site and will not be impacted."

Dubuc, the lawyer representing Living Rivers, said even small seasonal amounts of water and water on adjoining land need to be protected.

"What we are asking for is a more rigorous monitoring of this mine," Dubuc told the board. "At the end of the day, we don't know what the effects of this mine will be unless we do the monitoring.

"If any mine operation should be comprehensively monitored this is it. This is the first of its kind and we should be conservative on how we approach this."
During the 90-minute hearing in Salt Lake City, the board seemed 
comfortable with water quality officials' assurances that they could step in at any time and require the permits and monitoring if they detect changes in water amounts or if the processing of the oil sands appeared to having a harmful effect on the environment.

But no monitoring is contemplated at this time, said Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.

In an interview with InsideClimate News, Baker said he is convinced there isn't enough water to worry about.

"At this time there hasn't been evidence of water or a risk to any water sources," he said.

Still, Baker said the agency is sensitive to the issues raised during Wednesday's hearing and during the lengthy challenge brought by Living Rivers. The Water Quality Division could conduct onsite inspections following heavy rains or during periods of snow melt, he said. It also could monitor the mine’s waste sites once the operation is underway.

"I think there is still a window open to discussion about monitoring," Baker said, although he isn’t sure how it would work or exactly what standards might be set.

In 2010, U.S. Oil Sands won permits from Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to mine nearly 6,000 acres for bitumen, a thick, tarry substance ripped from the earth in clay-like clumps and then refined into oil. The company has scooped open a two-acre test pit and plans to mine an initial 213-acre site to extract bitumen for refining into oil beginning in 2014.

In rejecting arguments by Living Rivers and Western Resource Advocates, the board agreed with the Water Quality Division's opinion that there is so little groundwater within 1,500 feet of the surface of the proposed mine that additional safeguards aren't needed.

The company said it has drilled 180 holes 300 feet deep—and has sunk four dry wells of more than 1,500 feet deep—without hitting water. A fifth well hit water at 1,800 feet, and that water will be used in the mining process.

In reaching its conclusion, the board endorsed the recommendation of an administrative law judge who had earlier conducted a hearing into the environmental group's challenge.

"Substantial evidence ... supports a finding that groundwater has not been located and may be assumed absent in the project area except for a deep regional aquifer," Judge Sandra Allen said in her 40-page recommendation released in August. "The PR Spring facility and operations will have no more than a de minimis [minimal] actual or potential effect on ground water quality."

U.S. Oil Sands' Todd said Wednesday's ruling vindicated not only the company's position that there is no water to contaminate but also reaffirmed the company's commitment as a developer sensitive to environmental issues.
"This issue has gone through a very thorough review at many levels and at each turn it was determined that the U.S. Oil Sands operation did not pose a threat to water of any kind," he said.

Dubuc said the decision was based on an ill-defined characterization of groundwater by the various agencies involved in the review and permitting process. The division of water quality's definition was too vague and consequently open to too much interpretation, he said.

"If you use the wrong definition of groundwater then it's impossible to get the right answer," he said.

Further he said he thinks Utah regulators are reluctant to regulate business no matter the consequences.

"The politics of this state is 'we are open for business' and it is not going to change," he said. "The state has to be willing to regulate or face some unintended consequences to this mining."

Living Rivers Conservation Director Weisheit said he was perplexed by the decision.
"Why do you think the area is named PR Spring? Because there is water there," he said.
 He criticized the board for sitting in a conference room and not taking the initiative to visit the area. If they made the trip, Weisheit argued, they could see the water flowing from a spigot at PR Spring about a mile from the proposed mine.
"They think tar sands is more important than water," he said, "and that's from an agency that’s supposed to be concerned with water."

Keystone Conflict: Nebraska Firm Reviewing Tar Sands Project Has Ties to Pipeline Builder

Conflict of Interest!  Nepotism!  Something smells like Tar, and it stinks.

An activist rallying against the Keystone XL pipeline at a public hearing on Tuesday.

When Nebraska residents showed up for their final chance to speak out about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on Tuesday night, they were greeted at every turn by smiling employees of HDR Engineering, Inc., uniformly decked out in khaki pants and blinding white Oxford shirts embroidered with the company’s corporate logo. HDR, an engineering and consulting firm based in Omaha, was hired by the state to conduct an environmental impact assessment of the $7 billion project, which, if approved, would transport toxic crude oil from the Alberta tar sands fields across Nebraska’s environmentally sensitive Sandhills and the largest freshwater aquifer in North America.

Conflict-of-interest concerns have plagued the Keystone project from the beginning. Now it turns out that HDR has a very cozy relationship with the company it was supposed to evaluate. For starters, HDR was hired by TransCanada in 2009 to help build a $1.2 billion natural gas-fired power plant in Ontario. In a press release, a company executive called landing the Ontario project “a significant win for HDR.” Then in 2011, HDR undertook a feasibility study for TransCanada’s renewable energy development group. These facts were far from hidden. As part of the selection process for the Keystone job, HDR let the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality know about its links to TransCanada.

What’s more, HDR’s own website says one of its missions is to “help oil and gas clients overcome the challenges of increasing government regulation and oversight and harsh physical and political climates, and exploit those opportunities.” Among the services its provides to pipeline companies is “helping them through the environmental planning and permitting process.” HDR promises “one-stop shopping,” so these companies “can focus on what they do best -- delivering oil.”

Yet Nebraska’s environmental regulators went ahead and hired HDR anyway.

“Even a simple Google search shows the too-close-for-comfort relationship between HDR and TransCanada,” says Jane Kleeb, the executive director of anti-pipeline group Bold Nebaska. “You simply cannot have a fair and balanced environmental review when the contractor hired does work for the oil and gas industry. It would be like hiring Bold Nebraska to conduct the review and the hearing.”

HDR officials did not return calls for comment this week. But when the company applied for the Keystone job, it assured Nebraska officials that the company could be objective. Even though it had worked with TransCanada twice before, HDR wrote in its disclosure statements: “Both of these work efforts were of limited scope, have been completed, are the only recent work assignments with TransCanada, and were complete[ly] unrelated to the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Two other firms applied for the Keystone contract, which the Nebraska Legislature specifically said should go to a company with no conflict of interest. Olsson Associates of Lincoln disclosed that it had worked for a contractor on the Keystone XL pipeline -- possibly referring to a hydrology study for the Lewis & Clark Natural Resources District that was consulted as part of the rerouting process -- but not for TransCanada. EA Engineering Science and Technology Inc., also in Lincoln, did not reveal any conflicts, but didn’t get the job.

DEQ spokesman Jim Bunstock declined to comment on the process of selecting HDR or assessing its conflicts of interest, but he reiterated that everyone at the agency was satisfied that the company had conducted a fair assessment of the pipeline’s environmental risks for the department’s forthcoming report. He referred further questions to the agency official heading up the pipeline review, who did not return calls.

That’s little comfort to pipeline opponents who are already wary of inappropriate relationships between TransCanada and government regulators -- and the companies to which those regulators outsource their work. The U.S. State Department, which by executive order has federal authority over the pipeline project, was accused in 2011 of having a “cozy and complicitous relationship” with a lobbyist for TransCanada. The State Department also assigned its environmental impact review of Keystone XL to Cardno Entrix, a Houston-based environmental contractor with financial ties to TransCanada; as the New York Times reported, Cardno Entrix describes the Canadian pipeline company as a “major client” in its marketing materials.

After initially indicating it would likely approve TransCanada’s application, the State Department in late 2011 ordered a review of alternate routes to avoid putting critical water sources in Nebraska at risk. Officials said the move would push the approval process back to the first three months of 2013, removing a politically risky decision for the Obama administration in the midst of the reelection fight.

The delay also gave Nebraska state officials time to order their own review of the pipeline project. Although it would stretch 1,700 miles from northern Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, much of the concern about the Keystone project has involved the risk of leakages or spills in the environmentally sensitive Nebraska Sandhills and the Ogallala aquifer, which underlies portions of eight states, is critical to U.S. agriculture, and provides drinking water to millions of Midwesterners.

TransCanada has agreed to reroute the project in order to protect the Sandhills and aquifer, but its new proposed route has still caused concern among Nebraska farmers and landowners. In December 2011, the Nebraska legislature voted to spend up to $5 million from state coffers on an independent environmental assessment, to avoid precisely the sorts of charges of conflict of interest that arose after the Cardno Entrix controversy. Nebraska’s senators agreed that the evaluation should be performed within the state and by the state-run DEQ, with no financial contributions from TransCanada that might sway the investigation’s outcome. But as soon as the agency announced that it had awarded a contract to HDR Engineering to help with the report, allegations arose among pipeline opponents and local media that HDR had previous ties to TransCanada.

Even at Tuesday night’s public hearing at the Boone County Fairgrounds, the final chance for Nebraska residents to speak about the Keystone project, HDR ran the show. The company was responsible for taking the names of people who wished to speak -- and was in charge of seeing that those speakers came up on a first-come-first-served basis. But when bussed-in labor unions were allowed to hang pro-pipeline banners, and then TransCanada’s head of the Keystone XL project was the first to testify, soon followed by other supporters of the project -- all from out of state and many with a financial interest in seeing it approved -- ranchers and farmers from surrounding communities began to complain that, once again, the fix was in.
Rancher Laura Meusch, one of the first pipeline opponents to speak, did not get a chance to make her statement until about 10 p.m., four hours after testimony began and long after most of the press had left to file their stories.

(A handful of anti-Keystone voices spoke earlier, but they were greatly outnumbered during the early hours of the hearing by pro-pipeline speakers. The hearing eventually went to 2 a.m., and 105 people voiced their opinions.) 

 Meusch says it appears clear that HDR and DEQ were making things easier for the company and its supporters. “I was very disappointed in the way the DEQ and HDR bent over backwards for TransCanada,” she wrote via e-mail.

Nebraska state senator Ken Haar echoed Meusch’s concerns and added that he thought the release of the report and the subsequent hearing were ill-timed. He noted that the 30-day public comment period included the final run-up to Election Day and the Thanksgiving holiday, when both citizens and politicians were focused on other things. HDR and DEQ also held only a single hearing, the one Tuesday night in Albion. “I think NDEQ should have another hearing in perhaps 60 days,” he said.
Kleeb urged for the next hearing to be run by state officials. “The folks who are fighting for their land and water are demanding the DEQ fire HDR immediately,” she said.
But it might be too late for Nebraska officials to hold a second hearing if they want their environmental review to have any impact on the U.S. State Department’s decision about the pipeline. According to an Omaha World-Herald report today, the department appears close to releasing its own final environmental impact assessment of TransCanada’s new route proposal, perhaps as soon as next week. That would set the stage for the Secretary of State to either issue a permit or reject the pipeline in early 2013, as expected.

US House passes 'fiscal cliff' deal

President Obama declares the deal is a promise kept, despite falling short of earlier hopes for a grand deficit bargain.
Last Modified: 02 Jan 2013 15:36
The US House of Representatives has passed the "fiscal cliff" bill, ending a months-long dispute over the measure that averts tax hikes and spending cuts.

The bill's passage on a 257-167 vote in the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening sealed a hard-won political triumph for the president less than two months after he secured re-election while calling for higher taxes on the wealthy.

The legislation will now head to the White House for President Barack Obama to sign it into law.

The deal raises taxes on the wealthiest Americans and close a crucial chapter of the budget dispute that has consumed Washington for months.

Moments later, Obama strode into the White House briefing room and vowed to avoid a repeat of last year's divisive fight with Congress over an extension of the nation's borrowing authority.

"While I will negotiate over many things, I will not have another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they have already racked up," Obama said in remarks in the White House.
He urged "a little less drama" in coming budget talks about cutting government spending.

The extraordinary late-night House vote took place less than 24 hours after the Senate passed the measure in the pre-dawn hours on New Year's Day.
In addition to neutralising middle class tax increases and spending cuts that technically took effect on Monday at midnight, the legislation raises tax rates on incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples.
The developments came after the House decided to not alter the bill, which would have complicated congressional passage of the measure.

Senate Democratic aides had said the Democratic-led Senate,  would not return to vote on an amended version of the bill.

Balance of cuts

Supporters of the bill in both parties expressed regret that the bill was narrowly drawn, and fell far short of a sweeping plan that combined tax changes and spending cuts to reduce federal deficits.

The bill would prevent an expiration of extended unemployment benefits for an estimated two million jobless, renew tax breaks for businesses and renewable energy purposes, block a 27 percent cut in fees for doctors who treat elderly Medicare patients, stop a $900 pay increase for lawmakers from taking effect in March and head off a threatened spike in milk prices.
Al Jazeera's Tom Ackerman, reporting from Washington, DC, said that while the deal has helped alleviate concerns of an immediate economic nose dive in the US, it by no means solves the greater problem.

"In terms of actually putting a dent into the deficit, the deal did practically nothing, and in fact, taxpayers or wage earners will be seeing an increase in their taxes from the very beginning," said Ackerman.

"People will be looking at what's estimated to be, for the lo west income earners, who don't even pay income tax, about $300 extra in taxes a year, and people making about $75,000 - $100,000 a year, they'll be paying almost $2,000 more a year," said our correspondent.

The bill would also raise the top tax rate on large estates to 40 percent, from 35 percent, and taxes on capital gains and dividends over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for couples would be taxed at 20 percent, up from 15 percent.

It would stop $24 billion in spending cuts set to take effect over the next two months, although only about half of that total would be offset with spending reductions elsewhere in the budget.

The agreement includes a balance of spending cuts and revenue increases to pay for the delay in the automatic spending cuts that would go into effect without a deal.

For all the struggle involved in the legislation, even its passage would merely clear the way for another round of controversy about the nation's borrowing authority almost as soon as the new Congress convenes.

Canada's indigenous movement gains momentum 

Are the country's First Nations groups being denied their rights and being targeted by the government?
Last Modified: 02 Jan 2013 09:51

Canada's Idle No More movement began as a small social media campaign - armed with little more than a hashtag and a cause.
"The movement's really been in play for a long time ... but the kind of spark was this legislative initiative by the Harper government which started with Bill C-45 but also includes 14 other pieces of legislation that's being imposed on First Nations people .... But Bill C-45 ... impacts both Canadians and First Nations .... And so what you had was an imminent threat, something that we couldn't put off for negotiations for 25 years, it was a piece of legislation that was being rushed through the House without any input or consultation. So we had no choice but to gather very quickly and react."
- Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University
But it has grown into a large indigenous movement, with protests and ceremonial gatherings held almost daily in many of the country's major cities.

The movement is spearheaded by Theresa Spence, the leader of the Attawapiskat, a small native band in northern Ontario.
Spence is now 22 days into a hunger strike on Ottawa's Victoria Island, just across from the Canadian parliament.

Spence and other First Nations groups are demanding better living conditions for Canada's aboriginals, and they are angry at the country's government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which they accuse of trying to erode their land and sovereignty rights.
Canada's aboriginal communities have long been disproportionately affected by poverty.
A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that, in 2006, the average income for aboriginal people was just under $19,000, which is 30 percent lower than the $27,097 average for other Canadians.

Although that is a slightly narrower gap than 10 years previously, it would still take 63 years to achieve income parity.

The same study also found the annual income gap between other Canadians and aboriginals is $7,083 higher in urban settings, and $4,492 higher in rural settings.
"It is important to understand that Canada is currently being governed by a very extremist power .... The reality of Bill C-45, and the complete gutting of 30 years of environmental approvals enforcement and regulatory mechanisms [is that it will] significantly kick open the door for international investment in tar sands, and other unsustainable and harmful and devastating extractive industries, which disproportionately impact our native people and our way of life ... "
- Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous rights activist
Another study by the Campaign 2000 advocacy group found that one in four children within First Nations families in Canada lives in poverty.

And First Nations groups say Bill C-45, which is one of their main concerns, is just the latest bid by the government to change laws protecting the rights of Canada's indigenous people.

Its changes affect all Canadians, not just First Nations.

The bill amends laws that govern waterways and environmental protection.
Canada's government says the changes are necessary to clear up 'red tape' and protect the economy.

But First Nations protesters say their lands, treaty rights and sovereignty are being eroded.

They say they were never consulted while C-45 was under consideration, and that is a violation of Canadian law, even though native groups repeatedly asked Harper to meet with them to discuss their concerns.

They also point out that the government has repeatedly supported limits on First Nations' authority, despite promising not to approve any changes to the Indian Act.

Spence says: "It is time for everybody to work together. That means the government too – to treat us with respect and honour the treaty. The purpose of that treaty was to go in peace and honour each other and respect each other and slide together with the future, not to go separate ways. And this is what's been happening with the government. He's not listening or honoring our leadership.
"So that was the purpose of that treaty – to be partners. But we feel like the way it is right now we are more like a slave to the prime minister, not a partner."

So, are Canada's First Nations groups being targeted by the country's government? And what are the rights of the indigenous people?
Inside Story Americas, with presenter Kimberly Halkett, discusses with guests: Pamela Palmater, a lawyer and chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto, and Clayton Thomas-Muller, an indigenous rights activist and tar sands campaign co-director at the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Inside Story Americas invited several conservative MPs to join the panel but they all declined. However, John Duncan, the minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, sent the following statement.

"The Minister and the parliamentary secretary have made repeated efforts to reach Chief Spence to engage in discussion on the issues she has raised. We will continue trying to engage the chief and other First Nation leaders to discuss how we can build on the progress we have made since 2006
  • Built over 30 new schools
  • Renovated over 200 schools
  • Built over 10,000 homes and renovated thousands more
  • Invested in safe drinking water systems
  • Increased funding for child and family services by 25 percent
  • Introduced legislation to protect the rights of women on reserves
  • Settled over 80 outstanding land claims
  • Invested in over 700 projects that link aboriginals to job training and counseling services
"We believe that working together is the best way to build on this progress."