[1THING] Blog

[ Tracing the Northern Gateway: View from the East ]

Shell Oil Refinery, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. Photo credit: Ann Chen

Shell Oil Refinery, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. Photo: Ann Chen

Standing on the outskirts of Edmonton and looking northeast, a cluster of twinkling lights amid tall silvery smokestacks puffing out steam and smoke rises up out of the horizon.

Driving northeast towards those lights, following along the North Saskatchewan River, you will pass through the industrial city of Fort Saskatchewan, where petrochemical processing plants and bitumen upgrading facilities line the roads heading out of town. Train tracks run alongside the road and cylindrical rust stained train cars sit dormant, waiting to be filled with petrol products and sent along their way.

Here between Fort Saskatchewan and the next town, Bruderheim, is where the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline would start. I am on a reconnaissance mission to aerially map the beginnings of the pipeline, which would carry crude from the oil sands here in Alberta west to the British Columbia coast for export.

The last few big box stores fade into the background as the landscape empties out into fields, telephone poles, and industrial facilities. The roads empty out too. A few passenger vehicles whiz by, but the traffic is mostly industrial.

Range Road 214, Fort Saskatchewan, AB

Range Road 214, Fort Saskatchewan, AB. Photo: Ann Chen

Driving along the road, I feel out of place in my station wagon. This feeling is confirmed soon after I pull off the road to take some photographs. A truck coming in the opposite direction makes a quick u-turn and pulls up alongside me. Worried about being questioned for taking photographs, I pull my camera slightly behind my back as I turn towards the men in the truck. “Is that your car up there?” the driver’s friend asks. Did your car break down? Do you need help?

I smile in relief at their friendliness and concern and quickly reply, no, no, I’m fine, my car is fine. They look slightly confused as to why anyone would be walking in the gravel pitch alongside this empty corner of the world, but refrain from asking me more probing questions. I’m grateful for their concern, but it emphasized how out of place I am in this remote landscape.

Photo: Ann Chen

These large haulers are a common sight along this mostly empty road. Photo: Ann Chen

I am standing in what Alberta calls its Industrial Heartland, aka Upgrader Alley. It is also where the eastern terminus for the Northern Gateway pipeline is proposed to be built. The transformation of this agricultural zone into an industrial one did not take place without some nudging. In 1998, the five municipalities in this region just north of Edmonton partnered to form Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association, a non-profit association whose aim is to develop the region into a gas, oil, petrochemical and chemical processing powerhouse.

The initiative has succeeded in transforming the region into a heavy industrial zone, with many other energy infrastructure projects proposed or under construction. It is currently Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region, a fact evident in the patchwork of energy companies that dominate a recent landholdings map.

The air is heavy and sour with an unidentifiable—to me—chemical smell. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but it makes sense that the terminus of the pipeline would be at an oil transfer facility in an industrially zoned area and not in the center of a cluster of residential communities or farms, although the pipeline will eventually cut through both farther down the line.

The Northern Gateway will start in a region named the Heavy Astotin Industrial Area, within 1 mile (2km) west of the Astotin Natural Area, a provincially protected natural habitat. While it is “a relatively small area of forest for a nature reserve,” according to Travels and Trails, an online trail rating site, there are plenty of trails running through this rectangular wilderness zone.

In an environmental sensitivity and sustainability assessment report made in 2005, this northern section of Strathcona County is labeled “a large area of highly sensitive lands” because of its “extensive native vegetation cover and a broad groundwater recharge area.” The sandy composition of the soil made it inhospitable for agricultural development, creating a largely intact area of natural vegetation. The highly permeable soil–again due to its sandiness–meant that surface water could percolate through the soil rapidly to recharge groundwater aquifers.

The area’s dense forest, which includes the only stands of jack pine in Alberta, provides a habitat for wildlife including the broad-winged hawk and northern goshawk, two bird species ranked as sensitive in Alberta.

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Shell Oil Refinery off in the distance. Photo: Ann Chen

It’s winter now and most of the ground and vegetation is covered in a thick layer of snow, obscuring most definable landmarks. It’s hard to spot the vegetation that I read about in the report. It would be interesting, I think to myself, to return in the summer to map the park vegetation with an infrared camera, which would help highlight all the vegetative growth. The environmental assessment report mentioned above came out in 2005. What has changed in the interim decade, and could these new maps I intend to make provide any clues?

I get back in my car and drive farther down the road, continuing past the Shell plant on my left and looking for the beginning of the pipeline. I am scouting the area before returning the next day for the mapping event I had planned. Since it’s legal to take photos on public roads, I want to make sure there are accessible roads we can walk along during the mapping session of the landscapes the pipeline will cross through.

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A section of the Northern Gateway Pipeline will run alongside this road. Photo: Ann Chen

“You have arrived”, announces my Google assistant. I step out of the car with my camera, to look around.

Ann Chen is a photographer, multimedia artist and researcher from New York City. She is currently in Western Canada tracing the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline through collective storytelling, community mapping and citizen science. Read her earlier posts here or follow her project on Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

This post originally appeared on National Geographic’s Voices blog.

[ New Forest Service plan protects large portions of Colorado’s Thompson Divide ]

The Forest Service just released a plan that protects much of Colorado’s Thompson Divide from new oil and gas leasing. For years, this spectacular area has been threatened by oil and gas development.

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[ Obama’s Keystone veto elicits outcry—and Hollywood applause ]

Keystone XL potesters gather outside the White House in 2012. The controversial project has been in limbo for six years. (Photograph courtesy 350.org)

President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline is kicking off a new round of denunciations from critics and support from Hollywood A-listers, including Oscar winner Julianne Moore.

Obama vetoed a bill, passed by the GOP-controlled Congress Feb. 11. and delivered to the White House Tuesday afternoon, to allow a 1,179 mile pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. His veto, only the third of his presidency, came as no surprise. White House officials had indicated he would take such action on the multi-billion project.

“The presidential power to veto legislation is one I take seriously,” Obama said in his veto message to the Senate. “But I also take seriously my responsibility to the American people. And because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest — including our security, safety, and environment — it has earned my veto.”

The pipeline, first proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada in 2008, has become one of the most divisive issues of Obama’s administration. Opponents see it as a test of  the president’s commitment to the environment, arguing it would promote extraction of viscous Canadian oil that emits more greenhouse gases when burned than conventional crude. Proponents, including GOP lawmakers and the fossil fuel industry, say it would create jobs and bolster North American energy security by securing delivery of Canadian crude.

Even before Obama vetoed the bill, conservatives began denouncing the expected move. The conservative group Americans for Prosperity, partly funded by the billionaire libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, launched a media campaign to criticize it.

“This veto proved once again that it’s politics as usual here in Washington.,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute. “Instead of standing with 72 percent of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, who support the pipeline, this decision continues us down the path of indecision and delay.”

Environmentalists hailed the veto as a huge victory. “Today, the pen was mightier than the pipeline,” said Anna Aurilio of the advocacy group Environment America. “President Obama deserves credit for standing up to Big Oil,” she said, adding that it’s time to stop global warming and Keystone would only accelerate it.

Also backing the president was a diverse coalition of more than 100 high-profile individuals that include actors Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Redford, Alex Baldwin. In a “Unity Letter” sent to the White House, the signatories called Keystone a “classic boondoggle” that won’t create many jobs but will pose risks to health and safety and only benefit “a handful of rich oil companies.”

Obama’s veto is hardly the end of the Keystone debate. The president could still approve the project although he’s made critical comments about its environmental impact. Because it crosses an international border, Keystone has undergone lengthy environmental reviews by the State Department.

Congressional Republicans have said they’ll continue to fight for Keystone, possibly by attaching provisions that force its approval to must-pass spending bills. Also, TransCanada says it remains committed to the project, even though it faces other obstacles that go way beyond Washington politics. (See related story: “Two Reasons Why Obama’s Veto Won’t Decide Pipeline.”)

Currently, the proposed northern leg of the pipeline lacks an approved route through Nebraska and a viable construction permit in South Dakota. Until those two issues are resolved, what happens in the White House or on Capitol Hill won’t really matter.

 

[ National parks and wildlands are the place for peace & quiet ]

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[ Two Reasons Why Obama’s Keystone Veto Won’t Decide Pipeline ]

The never-ending saga of the Keystone XL pipeline gets new twists with potential problems in Nebraska and South Dakota.

[ National parks install charging stations for electric vehicles ]

Wildlands are changing rapidly due to climate change. Those of us who love them are challenged to visit them while leaving as minimal of a carbon footprint as possible. 

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[ New Pullman and Honouliuli monuments a reminder of the importance of bedrock conservation law ]

President Obama officially announced Browns Canyon National Monument, Pullman National Monument  and Honouliuli National Monument on Feb.

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[ The Wilderness Society Commends President’s Initiative to Get More Youth Outdoors ]

Emily Linroth

The Every Kid in a Park initiative will provide 4th grade students and their families free admission to all national parks and other federal lands and waters for a full year, support transportation for school trips, and provide educational resources for students and teachers through fie

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[ Public meeting to gather feedback on Nevada treasures that deserve permanent protection ]

Anastasia Greene

The Wilderness Society (TWS) applauded Senator Harry Reid and Representative Dina Titus today for convening a public meeting in Las Vegas to spotlight some of southern Nevada’s most treasured landscapes that deserve permanent protection.

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[ U.S. Homes Are Getting Bigger, Again, But More Energy Efficient ]

More McMansions, such as these in Greenwich, Conn., are appearing in affluent U.S. suburbs. Despite the upsizing of American homes, U.S. data show they're using less energy overall because of efficiency gains. (Andrew Watt/Flickr)

More McMansions, such as these in Greenwich, Conn., are appearing in affluent U.S. suburbs. Despite the upsizing of American homes, U.S. data show they’re using less energy overall because of efficiency gains. (Andrew Watt/Flickr)

During The Great Recession, the small-is-better crowd seemed to be winning. After decades of upsizing and the spread of suburban McMansions, the average size of new U.S. single-family homes fell. Yes, it actually shrank—about 5 percent from 2007 to 2010.

Architects like Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House series, cheered. They wondered whether their less-is-more view had, finally, become the new Zeitgeist or whether Americans were simply strapped for cash.

Turns out, it was just the economy. The downsizing didn’t last, and new U.S. homes are now bigger than ever, according to the most recent Census Bureau data. But how bad is this for the environment, since larger homes typically use more energy?

There’s some good news today on that front.  Efficiency gains are offsetting more than 70 percent of the growth in energy use that would result from the increasing size and number of U.S. households, reports the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In fact, energy intensity—energy used per square foot—was 37 percent lower (or better) in 2009 than in 1980. It meant a reduced use of coal, natural gas and nuclear fuel.

Why this progress? The EIA cites factors that include energy prices, shifts in fuel sources as well as new technologies and policies, adding: “Programs designed to increase the adoption of efficient technologies such as residential appliance standards, building codes, incentives, energy labeling (such as the voluntary ENERGY STAR® program), and other informational programs also work to decrease consumption.”

That’s the good news. The EIA also gives the bad: “The gains from energy intensity improvements would have been even larger if it were not for consumer preferences for larger homes and increased adoption of home appliances and electronics.” In the three-decade period studied, the average home size grew about 20%. With more square footage came more and larger devices, such as big-screen TVs that gulp energy. So U.S. households actually used more energy overall, 10.2  quadrillion British thermal units (quads) in 2009—up from 9.3 quads in 1980—even though they used less per square foot.

Moral of the story: Efficiency matters but so does size. An accomplished architect I know was once asked by a client how to make a new 10,000 square-foot home “green.” His response: Don’t build it.

U.S. homes are getting bigger but using less energy because of more efficient appliances and materials, U.S. data show.

U.S. homes are getting bigger but using less energy because of more efficient appliances and materials, U.S. data show.