Things with Feathers: Elwha and Keystone XL updates

The Victories of the Keystone XL Effort

So recently, TransCanada asked the US State Department to hold off on making a decision about the Keystone XL pipeline, in a move that was widely viewed as a blatant attempt to avoid being rejected by the current administration, so that TransCanada could just wait a couple years, when perhaps a more fossil fuel friendly President would be in office, and they could quickly get permission to build the rest of the pipeline.

The State Department denied the request, and shortly thereafter, President Obama rejected the project, which has been widely – and rightly – seen as a victory for all those who had been working for years to prevent it being built.

Many pipelines have been built (including a portion of the Keystone XL pipeline that is entirely within the US and was approved by President Obama; see item 6 here), regardless of the protests of environmental activists and people who will be directly impacted by those pipelines. Keystone XL was also assumed to be a project that would just get approved and be built, like all those others. In the past, tarsands oil had a lot of support from the Canadian government, and the previous US administration (under President G. W. Bush) was also very positive towards fossil fuels. In late 2011, after over 1,200 people were arrested protesting the pipeline, the State Department (now under President Obama) issued an environmental impact statement that looked very favorable to the project.

The inside story of how the Keystone fight was won” goes into the background and story of the various people and groups involved in protesting this pipeline, and the various political forces affecting its rejection. What I think makes this a story about victories is not just the victory in halting the pipeline’s progress – and in having the President speak out against it and the problem of climate change – but the victories of having many people from diverse places working together against it.

     In 2011, when 350.org, the climate action group that would become widely identified with the anti-KXL campaign, glommed onto the issue, there were two groups of activists already working on it: locals from affected communities along the proposed pipeline route, such as ranchers, farmers, and Native Americans, and environmental wonks in Washington, D.C.

The local people had been working against the pipeline since it was first proposed in 2008, which included tribal councils passing resolutions against it, and then taking their concerns directly to the President in 2011. In 2014, after the State Department issued another impact statement, again looking favorable towards the pipeline, the entire coalition held another protest event in Washington D.C.

     The theme was “Cowboys and Indians,” after the ranchers and Native Americans who both joined in. The Native American groups put up tepees where visitors could stop in and be educated about the issue. The week culminated in a rally and march with real-life cowboys and Indians riding horses. “That was the first time the White House acknowledged our work,” Kleeb wryly remembers. “I got an email from the White House saying, ‘OK, you’ve got our attention.’ They literally said that.”

     The cowboy and Indian alliance was not just cobbled together for that event. It had grown out of a Native American summit about a year earlier. “I was at an event at the casino on the Rosebud reservation [in South Dakota] in early 2013,” Kleeb recalls. “It was a community forum where everyone was sharing information. One of the elders talked about the cowboy and Indian alliance that stopped uranium mining in the ‘80s. So I went to tribal leaders and said we should revive the cowboy and Indian alliance and do events along the pipeline route. We did a concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, and ‘Reject and Protect’ on the Mall.”

     The collaboration between historical antagonists, both icons of the American West, gave the opposition to KXL a broader national political appeal. “Those faces are not the image you usually have of the environmental movement,” says Kleeb. “We were helping the White House understand that there was political space [to] reject it.”

The full story is much more complex, and includes delights like the Republicans’ focus on it backfiring, and the importance of it being an issue of climate change, which also gave the President what he needed to reject it. I recommend reading it in full.

Bonus hopeful climate change article: How We’re Winning the Climate Fight, One Community at a Time

Growth in the Elwha River

Here is a photo taken last month at the mouth of the Elwha River, where the new beach and estuary being created by free sediment, and a free-flowing river, continue to expand.

From the Facebook post that contained this image:

     The day after the weekend rain event during which the Elwha flows jumped from 2000 to over 12000 cfs in less than 8 hours. Flows then dropped back to pre-storm cfs overnight. Classic Elwha. The high flow combined with fall high tide and the entire Elwha west estuary (not blocked by a dike) was reactivated. The result? Juvenile steelhead, coho, and Chinook were abundant. Also, (for the first time in over a decade of sampling), we caught a number of large, powerful, adult chum in our sets. Once the second most abundant run in the Elwha chum numbers plummeted to a few hundred fish after the dams went in. We’ve said it before: Large, and packed with marine nutrients, chum are absolutely critical for the restoration of the watershed ecosystem.

     We have many significant challenges left to address in the Elwha nearshore. Today was a heart lifting moment to just experience the forceful hope unfolding in the Elwha, and a clear affirmation of what happens when you restore ecosystem processes.

Chum salmon are not the only fish starting to return and restore overall ecosystem health; some of the forage fish in the area are coming back, too (Source):

     Following complete removal of the last dam from the Elwha River it appears that the nearshore food webs have begun to repair themselves.  During a recent lower river and estuary seining, the Coastal Watershed Institute (CWI) documented, for the first time, hundreds of gravid and spent eulachon Thaleichthys pacificus- a federally listed river spawning smelt (watch a video of the field observation here).

Eulachon are a small, very fatty fish, also known as “candlefish” because they can be dried and then burned like a candle. They’ve been an important food for indigenous peoples as well as the other members of the ecosystem, and the undamming of this river is helping the population by providing the kind of sediment they need. They had been nearly absent for 60 years, and now, about a year after the last dam was removed, they are returning in abundance.

The Coastal Watershed Institute has also documented two kinds of smelt (also forage fish) near the Elwha now that the nearshore environment is being repaired by sediment flowing from the river. All species of forage fish are vital for the overall health of the ecosystems they are a part of, as a very wide range of larger animals – fish, mammals, birds – rely on them as a major part of their diets, so protecting these fishes from overfishing, and ensuring the habitat they need is protected and restored, is critical. It is exciting to see that they can start to return so quickly to an area that had been inhospitable to them for so long.


Bonus tree-on-a-rock image:

Life finds ways. (Tree on sea stack, Rialto Beach. Fjothr Lokakvan, 2015)
Life finds ways. (Tree on sea stack, Rialto Beach. Fjothr Lokakvan, 2015)

Thank you for reading. Thank you for being here.

Things with Feathers: News about amphibians and Shell

I’ve read some exciting news since last month, some of it about the rather small and some (which you’ve probably heard), about much bigger things.

“Extinct” toad rediscovered

The Azuay stubfoot toad of Ecuador, believed to be extinct earlier this century, has been found alive. The toads were once abundant, but were later the first species in Central and South America confirmed to have the chytrid fungus, which has devastated amphibian populations worldwide. It was assumed the fungus lead to their extinction, but the toads found recently show no signs of the infection.

Photograph by Alejandro Arteaga, Tropical Herping (via National Geographic)
Photograph by Alejandro Arteaga, Tropical Herping (via National Geographic article)

The article also briefly mentions a number of other amphibian species that have been rediscovered after being declared extinct, including frogs and salamanders in South America, Africa, and Haiti. The other articles about rediscoveries are also great reading!

Royal Dutch Shell leaves Arctic

And the big news: As widely reported last month, Shell has given up on drilling for oil in the Arctic; they didn’t find enough in their test drill to convince them it would be financially feasible to remain (this despite being SO CERTAIN, for YEARS that there was plenty of oil up there).

It’s been interesting reading different news/blogs’ takes on this: the more environmentally-leaning authors/sites paint this as a victory for the environmental activist movement, whereas more “conservative” authors play that down and focus on the economics of it.

Of course, the economics ARE a major factor; there’s no doubt about that. However, it’s been curious to see the “it’s really just about the money” sources not really addressing Shell’s official statement in full, especially the last bit of it:

“Shell will now cease further exploration activity in offshore Alaska for the foreseeable future. This decision reflects both the Burger J well result, the high costs associated with the project, and the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.” (source)

Right, “the challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.”

What about that? What happened recently? Neither of the two major Democratic candidates for President are in favor of drilling in the Arctic; if either of them gets elected, that person could end Shell’s (or anyone’s) access. Oregon Senator Merkley introduced a bill back in July that would prevent any future leases to drill in the Arctic, and, in addition, not renew current leases (it is cosponsored by Sen. Sanders, among others); the House bill was introduced in September by Rep. Huffman from California.

While I believe some of these politicians would hold these views regardless of popular opinion, these actions did not just come about in a vacuum. Playing down the role of thousands and thousands of people protesting Arctic drilling, Keystone XL, other fossil fuel extraction efforts, and asking for more ecological conscious alternatives, is slanted journalism.

It’s also worth keeping in mind what Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis say (in a lengthy interview, very worth reading), and particularly about the divestment in fossil fuels, which has become a really big effort (bolding added by me):

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what just happened in the Arctic—I think, to many people’s shock? You had the kayaktivists, the environmentalists converging along—all through the Northwest to try to stop Shell from drilling. You have President Obama, the first sitting president of the United States to go to the Arctic, giving some of the best climate change speeches ever. And yet, right before he went, he approved drilling in the Arctic. And then Shell announces they won’t be doing it, though he had given them permission?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, and though they had spent, I think, $7 billion on this adventure over the years. You know, it’s remarkable. And one of the things that I think one has to understand is that the fossil fuel industry will go to great lengths not to credit activism as being a contributor to a decision like this, because—

AVI LEWIS: Well, think what they could encourage, if they did.

NAOMI KLEIN: They don’t want to encourage us, yes. But I believe that this is a victory that absolutely should be claimed by this remarkable movement of those daring climbers on bridges, you know, climbing up—also climbing up the rig itself, the Polar Pioneer. I had a wonderful conversation with a 21-year-old named Zoe. When she was at the very top of the Polar Pioneer for seven days, I spoke to her on her satellite phone. But also the millions of people who signed the petition—I think it’s something like 7 million people signed the petition asking Shell not to go to the Arctic. So this was certainly a factor. We know that the price is down for oil, and there were concerns about whether this was even going to be economic. So, I think it was a combination of factors, that the profit margins are going down because the price is down, and this is a very expensive form of drilling, and then the cost to a brand when you have this type of mobilization, obviously, is something that their shareholders are concerned about.

But there’s something else, too, and I was talking about this with a colleague of mine, KC Golden, who’s from Seattle, and he’s the chair of the 350 board of directors. And he was saying, well, it’s something—it’s more than that. And what that is, is that this was always a long-term play. Shell always said, you know, “It’s going to take us a couple of decades before this becomes productive.” And KC’s point, and I think it’s a valid one, is that they’re no longer sure there is a long-term play, because of all of this cumulative impact of divestment, you know, of the fact that this movement is really a movement on a roll, that we are starting to see some significant policies. So, this whole idea of, “Well, we’ll do this in 20, 30 years,” investors are going, “Are you sure we’re going to be around for that long?” And so, I think that, on that level, it should also be claimed as a victory.

I’m going to quote another small bit from that interview, showing that even some of the individuals making their money directly from fossil fuels would prefer an alternative:

AVI LEWIS: It is complicated. And people in Alberta, who live next to that biggest industrial project on Earth, have been very anxious about the pace of development and the costs of that project for a long time. And, you know, the oil and gas industry is a very conformist culture. And if you speak about renewable energy, you really get slapped down. It’s like a—there’s a bit of a locker room thing happening there. But the number of workers who told us off camera that they would rather be building wind turbines and putting up—installing solar panels was remarkable. They wouldn’t say it on camera, except for this one amazing guy in the film who’s a boilermaker named Lliam Hildebrand, who started an organization called Iron and Earth, where he’s organizing tar sands workers in support of renewable energy. And he’s building support fast. And there’s a huge constituency up there, especially now that the oil industry is laying off thousands and thousands of people, of workers in that industry who would rather go home and tell their kids what they did that day and feel proud of it.

Activism matters. Individual actions matter; they add up. Economics does not exist independent of social behavior, and the sources who ignore the activism, and the efforts to change the status quo, are probably pushing an agenda.

NO-shell-arctic-drilling-rig
Original unedited photograph by Daniella Beccaria/AP; edits by me.

Keep up the good work!