As far as Canada's federal government was concerned, the environment was a non-issue in 2014. The feds rubber-stamped the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, made virtually no progress on climate targets, and for the seventh consecutive year failed to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from our ever-expanding oil and gas industry.
But if you ask a climate change scientist—or even an oil patch worker—they'd probably tell you 2014 was a nail-biter. Sure, some big projects were "conditionally" approved, but on the flip side, a swell of protests, blockades, and lawsuits put companies like Kinder Morgan, Encana, and Imperial Metals in a tough spot (PR-wise, at least).
Many Canadians were pissed about the environment, from arrested grannies opposing Kinder Morgan to Peace River homeowners whose land and water got majorly fracked. What else were people angry about? Our spy agency creeped on First Nations and environmental groups. The City of Victoria continues to collectively poo in the Pacific Ocean, and a dump fire in Iqaluit lasted over 100 days.
Here's a rundown of what we learned.
TAILINGS POND DISASTERS ARE A THING
Imperial Metals' Mount Polley copper and gold mine taught us what several million cubic metres of toxic sludge looks like when dumped into salmon-bearing waters. While scientists had previously raised concerns about tailings ponds (that the man-made lakes full of mercury, arsenic and other chemicals could leach out into nearby soil and groundwater, for example), few anticipated the massive dam collapse at Mount Polley.
The bluish-silver mining waste remains suspended in Quesnel Lake near Likely, BC, presumably for years, maybe decades, to come. We don't know the long-term health impacts on fish, wildlife, or residents. Mostly, we don't know because a mining-waste spill of this magnitude has never happened in Canadian history.
The disaster raised questions about another Imperial Metals copper and gold mine that was set to open in northern British Columbia this year. Members from the Tahltan First Nation blockaded Red Chris, an open-pit mine with similar tailings design. The group negotiated an independent engineering review of the tailings pond, but blockaders returned in October, and further negotiations are still underway.
CANADA'S SPY AGENCY CREEPED ON ENVIRONMENTALISTS
Back in January we learned Canadian spies spent time surveilling environmental groups' Facebook activity ahead of the Enbridge Northern Gateway hearings in Vancouver, Victoria, Prince Rupert, and Kelowna, BC. Idle No More, Leadnow, ForestEthics, and Dogwood Initiative were all " monitored" by the RCMP and CSIS.
Chuck Strahl, the head of Canada's spy watchdog, was also forced to step down after his consulting work for Enbridge surfaced and a conflict-of-interest scandal ensued. Released documents show several energy companies were copied on CSIS security briefs.
THE PIPELINE SITUATION
Speaking of Enbridge: after years spent winding through provincial and federal review hearings, the company's Northern Gateway pipeline was conditionally approved this summer. The project aims to pipe 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen from Alberta's tar sands across BC mountains and rivers to the province's northern coast. That "dilbit" would get packed onto supertankers in Kitimat, BC, and then shipped internationally—mostly to China.
The $7.9-billion pipeline won't necessarily get built, though. There are still 209 conditions to be met, including further consultation with unceded First Nations along the pipeline route. Opponents say the increase in tanker traffic is too risky, and that dilbit sinks will damage marine ecosystems. Pundits counter that Canada's crude-by-rail shipments increased 22 percent in the last quarter of 2014, and that since shipping crude by rail is dangerous, the pipeline is a better solution.
Of course, Enbridge isn't the only player aiming to push unrefined bitumen out of Alberta and into the international market. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion would triple the capacity of a 60-year-old line that currently ships refined oil from the patch to Burnaby and American ports. Burnaby's mayor declared war on the pipeline, which would dramatically increase the number of tankers crossing Metro Vancouver's shores. Dozens of people, including the aforementioned grandmothers, were arrested for blocking the company's recent geotechnical surveying work on Burnaby Mountain.
TransCanada's Keystone XL and Energy East pipeline proposals also have skin in the game. But with oil prices still slumping, it's anybody's guess which megaproject (if any) will actually break ground.
A garbage fire spiraled out of control inside Iqaluit's dump this summer. The northern capital city learned the hard way: you can't just let these things burn out on their own. Over four months, temperatures reached as high as 1,400 degrees celsius, schools were forced to close, and the mayor resigned.
Here's an excerpt from an August 29 health advisory: "The Department of Health is reminding residents to take necessary precautions regarding the dump fire smoke. People with heart or lung disease, asthma, the elderly, children, pregnant women and women who may become pregnant should limit their exposure to dump fire smoke. This can be done by staying indoors with the doors and windows closed, and with air exchangers set to recirculate indoor air or turned off. Reduce or reschedule outdoor physical activity."
It took a couple million dollars, a few weeks of planning and 17 consecutive days of firefighting to stop the blaze. Naturally, the 100-day trash inferno earned the name "Dumpcano."
Video of tap water catching fire due to fracking in the US. Via Gas Drilling Awareness Corporation YouTube channel.
ALBERTA'S FRACKING LAWSUIT
Flammable tap water is terrifying, which is probably why Jessica Ernst has continued her fight suing Encana and the Alberta government for fracking-related negligence on her property. This month a judge finally ruled her $33-million suit will move forward, years after the government first tried to throw the case out of court.
Ernst isn't the only Albertan who alleges hydraulic fracturing led to poisoned water and damaged property. Some researchers say the process of injecting highly pressurized water, chemicals, and sand into shallow coal seams can cause water contamination, methane leaks, and even mini earthquakes.
QUEBEC HAS CLOSED THE DOOR ON FRACKING FOR NOW
Meanwhile Quebec's leadership seems well-read on the tiny issue of poisoned water and potential mini-earthquakes, and recently said " no thanks, we'll pass" on fracking. Following a government agency review that ruled the economic benefits from hydraulic fracturing are outweighed by its environmental impacts, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard announced his province isn't interested in further development of its shale deposits. Industry groups urged Couillard to keep an "open door" policy. But with fracking's economic viability in question, it looks like the 300-trillion cubic feet of gas locked in Quebec's Utica shale formation isn't going anywhere.
DID WE FORGET ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE?
Canada has been slacking on its international carbon commitments this year. The latest evidence of this came in the form of an Environment Canada "emission trends" report that projected we'll miss our Copenhagen targets by over 100 megatonnes of greenhouse gas unless new measures are taken.
New measures have been promised for years in the form of federal regulation on oil and gas. The feds keep delaying action. When prodded about this during question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it would be "crazy" economic policy to introduce carbon limits on the industry at this time.
Meanwhile, the world's biggest polluters—America and China—committed to new, aggressive climate targets. It was also the warmest year on record. Again.
POO IN THE OCEAN
Last and probably least is Victoria's decades-long sewage issue. Out on the fringes of the environmental conversation, the City of Victoria continued to pump untreated poo into the Pacific Ocean, sparking pollution complaints south of the border.
Victoria's regional district has been trying to find a location for a sewage treatment plant for years, but neighbouring communities can't seem to agree on where to put it. With 130 million litres of raw waste flowing into the Pacific every day, that leaves about 2,190 more days and some 200 trillion litres of poo until a new treatment plan is expected to be in place.
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