Conservationists slam plans to dump mining waste into Norwegian fjord
Norway’s green and unspoilt image is at risk if government agrees to Nordic Mining dumping hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste into a fjord, say campaigners
Wednesday 19 November 2014 10.38 GMT
Norway’s image as one of the world’s cleanest, greenest countries with some of the finest unspoilt scenery will be tarnished if the government allows a giant titanium mining company to dump hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste directly into a fjord, conservationists warn.
Nordic Mining has applied to dump nearly 6m tonnes of tailings a year for 50 years into Førde Fjord, one of the country’s most important spawning grounds for cod and salmon, and a site where whales and porpoises congregate. The government is expected to give a decision in the next few days.
According to company statements, the plan is to remove around 250m tonnes of minerals from the nearby Engebø mountain. The annual waste would include 1,200 tonnes of sulphuric acid, 1,000 tonnes of sodium, 1,000 tonnes of phosphoric acid, 360 tonnes of carbonic acid and 90 tonnes of acrylamide as well as other acids, solvents and heavy metals including copper, nickel, lead, zinc and mercury.
But it contends that this will have negligible ecological effects even over 50 years. In a letter to the environment ministry last week it argues that waste deposits will cover no more than 13% of the flat fjord bottom which is less than 200 meters deep.
But Professor Callum Roberts, Britain’s leading marine conservation biologist, said that the company was “pulling the wool over the eyes of the Norwegian public”.
“This [plan] is mad. It’s like returning to the 18th century. It really is extraordinarily arrogant. It baffles me”, he said.
“This is pollution on a grand scale. There will be a huge downstream impact in the fjord and beyond. The pollution will get into the food chain and be moved out of the fjord. It can only be economics driving this. There is absolutely no ecological excuse.”
Scientists from the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research have also said that the very fine waste particles will spread far from the fjord, polluting the food chain and harming its vulnerable ecosystem.
But this is disputed by the company, which claims that its own water circulation models show that the waste would not be dangerous.
“We have long experience of deep sea tailings in Norway. There are temporary effects but it is more sustainable putting the tailings at sea than on land. The sea fauna would return within 5-10 years,” said company director Ivar Fossum, who added that the mine would not go ahead if it could not use the sea bottom.
“I am not a marine biologist but, based on the studies we have done, the marine biologists are wrong.”
In a letter to the Norwegian government the company stated: “The biological investigations did not reveal any rare or endangered species in the depositing area, and no evidence of important spawning grounds for fish was found. One possible spawning ground for ling [fish] was indicated; however, ling is a common deep water fish in Norwegian fjords, and it is expected that it can spawn in other areas of the fjord when depositing of tailings takes place,” it says.
“In our opinion, the investigations show that the tailings solution is environmentally safe. The project will strengthen Norway’s position in the titanium industry and trigger substantial positive effects locally, regionally and on a national level”.
Although the mine will provide up to 170 jobs, some local people fear it will devastate life in and around the fjord. In addition, tourist, seafood and fishing industry leaders have called for more research or have rejected the plans.
Activists from Friends of the Earth Norway protest in front of Førde Fjord, asking for a national ban on mining waste in all fjords. Photograph: Luka Tomac/Friends Of the Earth
“The waste from the planned mine would smother everything on the bottom of the fjord. In addition, ocean streams would likely carry the toxic mining waste far from the dumping area, with detrimental effects on marine life,” said Anne-Line Thingnes Forsund, a volunteer with Friends of the Earth Norway which is campaigning for a national ban on mining waste in all fjords.
“I grew up a few metres from the fish-rich Førde Fjord, and was able to fish for the family before I could read and write. The problem with dumping mining waste – leftovers from the mountain mixed with chemicals – in the fjord is that it will destroy all life in it. In addition it will destroy the way of life for people living by it.”
The Norwegian ministries of climate and environment and trade, industry and fisheries are expected to submit their recommendations on Friday to the ministry of local government which will decide shortly.
François Hollande insists green climate fund must be part of emissions deal
French president says fund, rejected by Australia, is crucial to bringing developing countries on board to make a legally binding deal
Lenore Taylor, political editor
Wednesday 19 November 2014 03.32 GMT
The green climate fund will be part of any international emissions reduction deal in Paris next year, the French president said in Canberra on Wednesday.
Tony Abbott, standing alongside François Hollande as he made the announcement, has said Australia will not be contributing to the fund.
The prime minister has committed only to considering further climate policies “in the coming months”.
The fund promises money to help the poorest countries with climate adaptation and mitigation and is seen as vital to winning their backing for a new global deal. Abbott again pointed to Australia’s domestic $2.5bn emissions reduction fund and the $10bn clean energy finance corporation, which he is trying to abolish, as examples of what Australia is already doing.
“We will be considering our position in terms of targets, in terms of contributions to various funds in coming months. But when it comes to funds, let me just make this observation,” the prime minister said.
“We’ve just passed a law in our parliament to establish a $2.55bn fund over the next four years to purchase abatement. So, this is a very significant fiscal contribution to the task of global emissions reduction.
“We’ve also got the clean energy finance corporation, a $10bn institution which is in the business of funding various projects which have economic and environmental outcomes.
“Finally, a significant part of our aid contribution, our overseas aid, particularly in the Pacific, is climate mitigation. So, Australia is doing a lot and obviously we’ll consider what more we can do in the weeks and months ahead.”
Abbott said it was “very important that we don’t have another disaster like [the 2009 climate conference] in Copenhagen. For Paris to be a success, we “can’t pursue environmental improvements at the expense of economic progress”, he said.
Hollande stressed the importance of the green climate fund to the negotiations before Paris and for countries to bring forward their new emissions reduction pledges well ahead of the meeting, late next year.
The green fund contributions already announced (which include a $3bn pledge by the US and a $1.5bn pledge by Japan revealed during the G20 summit) “show very clearly that if we want the emerging countries and the more fragile countries to participate in this global growth, we have to ... support them,” Hollande said.
He said the new deal had to be “legally binding, and it has to … have some sort of link with the green fund”.
Abbott said it was “good to hear Francois talking about a binding agreement coming out of Paris. What’s important is that the agreement is strong and effective and that the targets are met. That’s the point – targets have to be met and when it comes to [the Kyoto protocols] Australia more than met its reductions targets, and that can’t be said of other countries.”
Australia did exceed its Kyoto targets – after negotiating an extremely generous deal at that meeting. Australia was one of only two countries allowed to increase its emissions by the Kyoto target year of 2012. Australian emissions were allowed to climb 8% compared with a 1990 baseline and Australia also negotiated a deal to include land use emissions, which credited a steep reduction in land clearing in Queensland that had already occurred when the deal was done. The Abbott government insists its Direct Action fund will be able to meet the next target - a 5% cut by 2020 – although analysts believe this will be difficult.
Canada – one of the few countries previously in line with Australia’s opposition to the green climate fund – now appears to have changed its mind, with Abbott’s close friend prime minister Stephen Harper telling journalists at the G20 he was preparing to make a contribution.
Last November, Abbott and Harper “made history” by jointly dissenting from support for the fund in a communique from the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
After his meeting with Hollande Abbott also said Australia would move quickly to negotiate a free trade agreement with the European Union, saying the agreements clinched with Japan, South Korea and China showed Australia was “capable of moving quickly ... more quickly than people might think.”
The two leaders also discussed how to deal with citizens leaving to fight in Iraq and Syria.
The Floating Gardens of Bangladesh
Farming on Water to Prevent the Effects of Climate Change
By AMY YEE
NOV. 18, 2014
CHARBHANGURA, Bangladesh — Each year the brown waters of the Gumani river swell during the summer monsoon, creeping over the surrounding fields to flood Charbhangura, a village of 2,500 people in the Pabna district of northwest Bangladesh.
From July to October the waters can rise at least 10 feet. The trunks of trees more than 30 feet away from the dry season riverbed show watermarks waist high. When the fields flood, the village’s farmers have no work.
“There is water all around,” said Hafiza Khatun, 25, a mother of two whose family income used to vanish for six months of the year when her farm laborer husband had nothing to do. “There was no happiness.”
But three years ago, Ms. Khatun was trained by Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization, to tend an unusual source of food and income: a floating farm with a duck coop, fish enclosures and vegetable garden moored by rope to the riverbank.
Five to 10 women can share the structure, splitting about 130,000 taka, or about $1,700, a year. Shidhulai supplies seeds, fish and duck feed and other materials that cost about 10,000 taka.
This money goes a long way in rural Bangladesh, especially for villagers struggling to survive. Ms. Khatun, who has no education and bore the first of her two children when she was 15, previously earned nothing.
Climate change threatens to worsen the severity and duration of floods in low-lying Bangladesh.
Floating farms — and produce that can flourish in flood conditions — are a way to help Bangladeshis live with rising waters.
“There is big demand for solutions for climate change-affected areas,” said Mohammed Rezwan, the founder and executive director of Shidhulai.
With the extra income from selling eggs, fish and vegetables, Ms. Khatun started saving money in a bank for the first time, bought a bed to keep her and her family off wet ground in their dirt-floored home, and helps her husband support the family.
Ducks quacked loudly as Ms. Khatun gathered eggs in the coop, ushering some of them outside to the “duck run,” a stretch of water between fish enclosures. She had never raised ducks or fish before the training, Ms. Khatun said, but “nothing has been very difficult.”
In northern Bangladesh, agricultural land is regularly flooded as rivers are engorged by the annual Himalayan snow melt and monsoon rains. In one of the world’s most densely populated countries, where 156 million people live in an area the size of Iowa, thousands are left with no way to earn a living. Many migrate to already overcrowded cities, contributing to urban blight.
Mr. Rezwan founded Shidhulai as a 22-year-old architecture graduate in 1998. That year, disastrous flooding in Bangladesh killed 700 people and left 21 million homeless.
Initially, Mr. Rezwan focused on building schools on boats, and worked to ensure that thousands of children would not fall behind when roads were blocked by floodwaters.
To date, the nonprofit’s fleet, which now numbers 22 schools, five health clinics and 10 libraries, has provided continuity of education and other services for more than 70,000 children in villages isolated by seasonal floods.
Four years ago it started to also build floating farms for villagers, and particularly the landless poor, to help them eke out a living during the months of floods.
So far there are 40 floating farms that are worked by about 300 women: Mr. Rezwan has ambitious plans to create 400, to serve 3,000 women and their families in the next few years.
He also argues that the floating farm concept could help other riverine developing countries, as has been the case with floating schools. “They have the potential to be replicated around the world,” he said.
Shidhulai’s school boats have been copied in several other countries, including the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nigeria and Zambia.
A floating farm measures about 56 feet long and 16 feet wide. The coop can house 100 ducks and is equipped with a small solar panel to power lights inside. It floats on empty oil drums, plastic containers and a bamboo platform.
The coop is attached to bamboo rods that make up two rows of fish enclosures where tilapia is farmed in blue plastic nets. The outer rails of bamboo support the garden. They hold old plastic jugs cut in half where villagers grow cucumbers, beans and gourds in soil and natural fertilizer.
Mr. Rezwan took his initial concept for the farms from floating gardens that had been used in southern Bangladesh for hundreds of years. Those gardens layered water hyacinths — a type of weed — over bamboo structures and topped the resulting artificial island with soil to grow vegetables.
The design had to be modified however, to suit local conditions. The southern model didn’t work in the north, where heavier rains waterlogged the vegetable beds and it was difficult to create drainage. Water hyacinth was also less plentiful in the north.
The duck coop, originally built on a bamboo platform, now rests atop more-buoyant plastic oil drums — recycled and found materials are enthusiastically used alongside locally grown bamboo.
Villagers can now build the entire structure for the equivalent of $260, which is covered by Shidhulai, Mr. Rezwan said.
A Dam Revival, Despite Risks
Private Funding Brings a Boom in Hydropower, With High Costs
By ERICA GIES
NOV. 19, 2014
While some dams in the United States and Europe are being decommissioned, a dam-building boom is underway in developing countries. It is a shift from the 1990s, when amid concerns about environmental impacts and displaced people, multilateral lenders like the World Bank backed away from large hydroelectric power projects.
World hydropower production will grow from 4,000 terawatt hours now — about the annual power output of the United States — to 4,670 terawatt hours in 2020, according to Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency, in Paris. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that hydropower generation will double in China between 2008 and 2035, and triple in India and Africa.
The World Bank and other international lenders were the most important financiers of large dams before the ’90s lull. But although the World Bank has in recent years increased its investment in hydropower from a low of just a few million dollars in 1999 to about $1.8 billion in 2014, it still funds only 2 percent of hydropower project investment today.
Picking up the slack are national development banks from emerging countries such as China, Brazil, Thailand, and India, and private investors. Public-private partnerships are on the rise, generally with the support of regional development banks.
“Who benefits from these infrastructure projects?” asked Jason Rainey, executive director of the anti-dam group International Rivers, in Berkeley, Calif.
Some well-documented answers: The Xayaburi Dam in Laos will sell power to Thailand, while threatening the subsistence livelihoods of people who have long lived along the Mekong River; the Inga 3 dam in the Democratic Republic of Congo will sell power to mining companies and to South Africa, rather than to the 96 percent of Congolese who lack access to electricity.
A 2012 report from International Rivers found that Chinese companies or financiers were involved in 308 dam projects in 70 different countries, many in Southeast Asia, but also some in Africa, Latin America and Pakistan. Aside from supplying electricity to investing countries, projects can also offer a type of vertical integration to power funders’ industrial projects, such as mining or smelting. “China isn’t the only one working this model,” Mr. Rainey said: “The Brazilian Development Bank has financed more dam projects in Latin America than the Inter-American Development Bank. India is investing in hydropower in Nepal and Bhutan.”
Nancy Alexander, director of the Economic Governance Program for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a public policy institute in Berlin, said she attributed this trend partly to a Group of 20 initiative that prioritized infrastructure investment as a path to economic stability.
The initiative encourages joint financing by multilateral development banks and other sources. A World Bank report on hydropower this year said that the bank now “typically acts as a ‘convener,’ bringing other financiers to the table.” It said that over the past five years, the World Bank Group had funded about half of the costs of projects that it financed, with the balance coming from host country governments, the private sector and other development banks.
Ms. Alexander said the problem with this model is that it “derisks” mega-projects for the private sector and draws in institutional investors like pension funds and mutual funds. “Very often this means privatizing profits and outsourcing risks to the public,” she said.
Those risks can be both significant and hidden, she added. Project backers may cite national security or business confidentiality to avoid sharing information with the public.
National development banks such as the Brazilian Development Bank, China Development Bank and the Development Bank of Southern Africa “have abysmal records in terms of transparency and in terms of social and environmental safeguards,” Ms. Alexander said.
The reduced involvement of global institutions allows countries to ignore international concerns. Although international backers have pulled out, for example, public-private funding has permitted Turkey to go ahead with its Ilisu Dam on the Tigris, defying Unesco’s objections that it would flood Hasankeyf, a town with 10,000 years of history. Turkish dam projects have also played a role in drying out Iraqi wetlands downstream and exacerbating tensions in Syria.
Yet, although dam investment is coming from diversified sources, activist organizations still look to the World Bank to set the standard for environmental and social protections. At the World Bank’s annual meetings this autumn, 318 civil society organizations from 98 countries criticized its proposal for a new environmental and social framework, saying it would weaken existing safeguards. Among other things, they said, it would undermine the rights of indigenous people and of those displaced by projects, fail to protect workers or guarantee human rights and not meaningfully address climate change.
“They have a lot of weasel language that softens and dampens safeguards,” Mr. Rainey said.
Amy Stilwell, a spokeswoman for the World Bank, said the proposal was just a starting point. A second phase of consultations, including those with the petitioning groups, will begin soon, with a second draft expected in 2015, she said.
Part of the reason dams are back in favor, despite ongoing concerns, is the increasing awareness of climate change and the need for cleaner energy sources, said Ken Adams, president of the International Hydropower Association, an industry group based in London. Hydropower can also balance the electricity load and store energy to support intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, he said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change supports hydropower to slow climate change, calling it a “proven, mature, predictable technology,” in a 2011 report.
Hydropower’s reputation for low emissions, however, has come under scientific scrutiny in recent years. Reservoirs behind dams flood vegetation, which decays, releasing methane and soil carbon. A 2012 study, in the journal Nature Climate Change, concluded that “emissions from tropical hydropower are often underestimated and can exceed those of fossil fuel for decades.”
The study emphasized that the effect is more pronounced in tropical ecosystems. Yet hydropower is typically presumed to be emission-free, Mr. Rainey said. “There is no mechanism within dam sanctioning processes, or any of the funding models, that methane emissions be monitored in dam projects,” he said, adding that even carbon market instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism help to fund large dams without considering their carbon footprints.
Mr. Adams said his association’s voluntary standards could offer a solution. Its Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, drafted with input from various stakeholders, including the World Bank, provides a framework for hydropower developers to monitor and benchmark their projects. William Rex, a hydropower specialist at the World Bank said: “We see it as a really useful tool.”
Mr. Adams said his association would like to see financial institutions encourage borrowers to use it. “Any energy source is going to have its good side and downside,” said Mr. Adams. “But I believe that if done intelligently and appropriately, the downsides to hydro projects can be managed.”
Italian supreme court's asbestos ruling could have major implications for Brazil
Court’s cancellation of Swiss asbestos polluter’s jail sentence dismays activists in Brazil, where substance is widely used
Maria Zuppello in Sao Paulo
theguardian.com, Thursday 20 November 2014 13.30 GMT
The Italian supreme court ruling on a case brought against Eternit, a Swiss-based building firm, could have major implications for the continued use of asbestos across the world.
On Wednesday, the court in Rome cancelled an 18-year jail sentence on the firm’s former owner Stephan Schmidheiny, who was facing charges of environmental disaster, having been found guilty of failing to comply with safety rules in two previous rulings.
The basis of the court’s ruling was that the statute of limitations had passed – Eternit left Italy 25 years ago – but the local trade unions and the Italian asbestos victims’ association, Afeva, who brought the case jointly, now intend to take it to Strasbourg.
Victims’ families shouted: “Shame on you!” as the verdict was pronounced. The group consisted of about 200 people, most of them from Casale Monferrato, a north-west Italian city where victims of asbestos-related diseases have been numbered in the thousands. Others came from countries including Switzerland, the UK, the US, Argentina, Belgium and Brazil.
Bruno Pesce, the leader of Afeva, said: “This sentence is a shock, it has been a shot into our stomachs, it seems that thousands of deaths never existed. We can’t stop our fight when people keep on dying every week. My country missed a chance to tell the world the truth. We still ask for justice”.
Activists in Brazil are likely to be particularly dismayed by the court’s decision. The country is the world’s third-largest asbestos producer – at 300,000 tons per year – and a major consumer. Asbestos has been used extensively in Brazil, , mostly in the form of cement for roof tiles and roofing panels, plasterboard, and domestic and industrial water tanks.
According to Ubiratan de Paula Santos, a pulmonologist at the University of São Paulo medical school, it is estimated that Brazil accounts for 10% of global asbestos-related deaths. “It’s time to put an end to this, otherwise 30 years from now this epidemic will increase, and will reach uncontrollable levels,” he said.
The Italian case is the biggest trial for environmental damage in European history, with more than 2,890 injured parties – workers and members of the public living around the plants. More than 2,000 have died or are suffering from serious illnesses,
Linda Reinstein, president of the US-based Asbestos Disease Awareness Organisation, said: “With this verdict, money and power won again. Eternit’s flagrant disregard for public health and the environment is reprehensible and criminal.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 125 million people are in contact with asbestos at their workplaces, and every year more than 107,000 people die as a result.
One of the characteristics of asbestos diseases is the long latency period – the time between exposure to it and the manifestation of symptoms. For mesothelioma it can be 10-40 years. This means that someone who was involved in asbestos production in the 1960s may have been disease-free for many years, but could be diagnosed with mesothelioma today.
MDG : Asbestos in Brazil : general view of mine tailings from the Cana Brava chrysotile mine, Minacu The Cana Brava mine, owned and operated by Sama, part of the Brazilian Eternit Group, in Minacu, Brazil. Cana Brava is the only mine producing chrysotile, or white asbestos, in Latin America. Photograph: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
Although asbestos was banned in Italy in 1992 – and elsewhere in Europe in 1999 – it is still largely used in Brazil, Russia, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Mexico was the leading destination for US asbestos products, accounting for 39% of exports, but the US claims to be dependent on asbestos imports to meet manufacturing needs and, without a ban, imports and exports continue. Last year, all the asbestos the US imported was chrysotile from Brazil.
Asbestos is banned in six Brazilian states yet, despite the WHO resolutions, it is still widely produced and has been a valuable commodity for the past 50 years. In 1995, Abrea, the Brazilian Association of People Exposed to Asbestos, was formed by hundreds of former workers in Osasco, São Paulo state. The former asbestos-cement capital of Brazil is nowadays the capital of the asbestos victims’ movement.
Fernanda Giannasi, a founding member of Abrea and former inspector with the federal labour ministry, is an outspoken advocate for the rights of people exposed to asbestos to receive justice and medical treatment. “We will not give up. The Italian verdict does not stop our fight against asbestos in Brazil. We want justice for our victims,” she said.
Australia one of only four nations forecast to miss 2020 emissions target
A UN report says Australia and just three other nations will not meet their pledge to reduce emissions by 2020
theguardian.com, Friday 21 November 2014 07.12 GMT
Australia is one of just four nations not on track to meet emissions reduction promises, a UN report has warned, while a US-based research firm has poured scorn on Tony Abbott’s insistence that coal is “good for humanity.”
A report by the UN Environment Programme states that the world should aim to be “carbon neutral” by 2070 at the latest. Exceeding a budget of just 1,000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide would risk “severe, pervasive and in some cases irreversible climate change impacts”.
In an analysis of each signatory to a UN goal to limit global warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels, the report found that just four nations – Australia, Canada, Mexico and the US – needed to do more to meet their respective emissions reduction targets by 2020.
The UNEP analysis finds that Australia is set to emit 710 million tonnes of CO2 in 2020. This is well above the 555 million tonnes it would emit if it were to meet a goal of a 5% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, based on 2000 levels.
The report notes that Australia’s Coalition government has “replaced carbon-pricing mechanism with Emissions Reduction Fund. This results in an increase in projected emissions for 2020.”
After scrapping carbon pricing in July, emissions have risen in Australia, reversing a previous downward trend.
The replacement Direct Action policy, which the government claims will be more effective and a lesser burden on cost of living pressures, will start voluntary payments to businesses to reduce emissions from the first quarter next year. Independent analysis has cast doubt on whether Direct Action will meet the 5% emissions reduction goal.
The UNEP said countries could slash emissions through renewable energy and energy efficiency while maintaining economic growth.
Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, said there are “many synergies between development and climate change mitigation goals.
“Linking development policies with climate mitigation will help countries build the energy-efficient, low-carbon infrastructures of the future and achieve transformational change that echoes the true meaning of sustainable development.”
In October, Abbott said coal was “good for humanity” because it would be used to lift millions of people out of poverty, In subsequent G20 talks, Abbott reportedly told international leaders he was “standing up for coal”.
This position was directly challenged at the launch of the UNEP report in Washington DC. Andrew Steer, president of US development research organisation World Resources Institute, said Australia was wrong to view fossil fuels as the way to boost economic growth.
Steer said better technology and more efficient uses of resources were the best paths to alleviate poverty, claiming that US$19tn would be invested in renewable energy globally over the next 15 years. “We can’t afford not to do it; the economic imperative is to act,” Steer said.
The report presents just the latest climate change headache for the government. Julie Bishop, the foreign minister, has spoken out against a speech made by US president Barack Obama over the threat posed by climate change to the Great Barrier Reef.
In an apparent contradiction of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the government’s own Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Bishop said the reef was not in danger and that a decline in water quality had been reversed.
Mark Butler, Labor’s environment spokesman, said the UNEP report was evidence that the Direct Action climate policy wouldn’t work.
“Tony Abbott is taking Australia backwards, while the rest of the world moves forward,” he said. “The United Nations report demonstrates that under the carbon price mechanism, Australia’s carbon pollution reductions reduced by 7% – for the first time in history.
“World leaders, including some of Australia’s largest trading partners, have pledged to increase their emissions reduction targets. Tony Abbott would rather pay polluters to pollute and keep his head in the sand.”
Afghan women's voices must be heard to build a better country
Female input will be vital if next month’s London conference on Afghanistan is to boost development and bring positive change
“This is your world, shape it or someone else will” – Rula Ghani, Afghanistan’s first lady
I recently attended a programme launch for women’s empowerment where Afghanistan’s first lady, Rula Ghani, was the keynote speaker. She ended her speech with the powerful statement above that inspired many of us there.
However, it made me think. In the real world of Afghan women, how many are able to do this? How many have real opportunities and support for this from male family members and colleagues?
Women’s participation in and contribution to Afghanistan have improved. It is always pleasing to read how women’s rights have been boosted in Afghanistan in education, health and government. It is also very positive tha one of the reasons for the presence of the international community in Afghanistan is to address women’s rights. But this progress has been limited to the big cities where people are fairly well educated and understand the concept of women’s rights. We have failed to address why men and women are not considered equal citizens in most of the country.
The London conference on Afghanistan, on 4 December, is considered an important opportunity for both the Afghan government and international community to discuss their mutual commitment and collaboration after this year, when the majority of US and UK troops leave. While it is encouraging that the UK government will host civil society, including a side event for women, before the conference, there is little information on how many women will be involved in the official delegation of the Afghan government. Discussions and negotiations over the final communique are under way, yet women’s groups within the government and the women’s movement have not yet been consulted. There is also limited information on the Afghan government’s priorities for this conference.
In the past 13 years, women’s representation has been limited. Despite three female ministers in the cabinet, 27% in the parliament and senate, nine women in Kabul’s high peace council and two to three per province in 31 provinces, women’s participation is rarely seen in important national discussions, decisions, authority and leadership. Women in these positions have failed to fully address the needs of other women.
The international community, particularly the UK government, has played an effective donor role to support women’s rights in Afghanistan. So far, the funding has supported the implementation of short-term projects by women-led organisations, but the absence of meaningful political and diplomatic pressure on policymakers to ensure women’s equal participation has always been felt.
It is promising that the UK Department for International Development (DfID), with the support of the UK-based British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group, plans to bring 50 civil society representatives to the London conference. But the women’s rights agenda seems to be missing. Past experiences have shown that the civil society delegations usually have a broader agenda to lobby for, which could see women’s concerns left to one side. As an activist, I was disappointed to hear that the visa applications for the women’s delegation – which had a specific agenda to discuss women’s concerns and recommendations – was not supported by the organisers.
Where both the Afghan and UK governments have priorities under their national action plans on women, implementation of these plans is a challenge. When female leaders are not engaged in national discussions and decisions, where international supporters do not prioritise women’s rights as per their commitments, it clearly shows a lack of interest and political will to address women’s rights.
We still hope to see a good representation of women in the Afghan government’s official delegation at the London conference. The UK government as co-host must ask for the meaningful participation of these women, a specific women’s rights event where they can make recommendations, and for these to be included in the final communique.
Afghan women have the ability to think about their country’s development, contribute to it and lead positive change. Women should be given an equal opportunity to make a better Afghanistan.
Samira Hamidi is director of the Afghan Women’s Network in Afghanistan
In Step to Lower Carbon Emissions, China Will Place a Limit on Coal Use in 2020
By EDWARD WONG
NOV. 20, 2014
BEIJING — China plans to set a cap on coal consumption in 2020, an important step for the country in trying to achieve a recently announced goal of having carbon dioxide emissions peak by around 2030.
The State Council, China’s cabinet, released details of an energy strategy late Wednesday that includes capping coal consumption at 4.2 billion tons in 2020 and having coal be no more than 62 percent of the primary energy mix by that year.
Worldwide, coal burning for industrial use is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, which are the biggest catalyst of global climate change. China is the biggest emitter of greenhouses gases in the world, and it uses as much coal each year as the rest of the world combined.
In theory, coal consumption might increase beyond 2020, but some researchers say economic trends show the rate of growth in coal use slowing in coming years and peaking about 2020. That means the State Council’s timeline is consistent with the findings of those researchers. The numbers announced Wednesday might be further formalized in China’s next five-year plan, whose details will be released around March.
Last week, President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China announced a joint pledge to cut or limit carbon dioxide emissions from his country.
China said it would reach an emissions peak “around 2030” and energy from sources other than fossil fuels would make up 20 percent of the total mix by that year. That announcement was praised by environmental advocates as a significant political move by the two nations.
Environmental advocates on Thursday welcomed the State Council’s announcement this week. But, as with the “around 2030” pledge on peak emissions, they said China could make a greater effort — for example, China could cap coal consumption even earlier or at a lower level.
“We think it’s definitely a positive sign, in line with what they’ve said they’re going to do,” said Alvin Lin, China climate and energy policy director in the Beijing office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group based in New York.
But “we’d like to see it a bit lower than that,” he said, “if you’re trying to meet the air pollution and air quality targets that they have set, and if you consider all the other environmental and health impacts of coal and the greenhouse gas emissions of coal.”
Some Chinese officials began tackling the problem of coal burning with vigor in 2013, when the public outcry over toxic smog — Chinese cities are among the world’s most polluted — reached a high pitch. In September 2013, the government announced that provinces in populous parts of eastern China would try to cut coal consumption.
Analysts for Greenpeace East Asia said the amount of coal consumed in the first nine months of 2014 might actually have dropped by 1 to 2 percent compared with the same period last year, based on data from a national coal industry association. The miasmic air remains poisonous, though; the United States Embassy air monitor in Beijing labeled the air quality on Wednesday and Thursday “hazardous.”
Last year, China consumed 3.61 billion tons of coal, and coal made up 66 percent of the primary energy mix. Li Shuo, a researcher at Greenpeace East Asia, said those figures indicate that China’s goals for 2020 should be more ambitious.
"What they laid out is a reference point, and then they will work from there to squeeze out more stuff,” he said.
China’s recent announcements on coal consumption and the 2030 emissions peak could weaken arguments in the United States by opponents of President Obama’s climate change policy, who often ask why America should act if China is not committed, said Alex L. Wang, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies Chinese environmental policy and regulations.
“Opponents of climate change regulation in the U.S. have long used China’s emissions as an excuse for inaction on the U.S. side,” he said. “Last week’s joint announcement is the beginning of the end for this line of argument.”
The Downside of the Boom
North Dakota took on the oversight of a multibillion-dollar oil industry with a regulatory system built on trust, warnings and second chances.
By DEBORAH SONTAG and ROBERT GEBELOFF
NOV. 22, 2014
WILLISTON, N.D. — In early August 2013, Arlene Skurupey of Blacksburg, Va., got an animated call from the normally taciturn farmer who rents her family land in Billings County, N.D. There had been an accident at the Skurupey 1-9H oil well. “Oh, my gosh, the gold is blowing,” she said he told her. “Bakken gold.”
It was the 11th blowout since 2006 at a North Dakota well operated by Continental Resources, the most prolific producer in the booming Bakken oil patch. Spewing some 173,250 gallons of potential pollutants, the eruption, undisclosed at the time, was serious enough to bring the Oklahoma-based company’s chairman and chief executive, Harold G. Hamm, to the remote scene.
It was not the first or most catastrophic blowout visited by Mr. Hamm, a sharecropper’s son who became the wealthiest oilman in America and energy adviser to Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. Two years earlier, a towering derrick in Golden Valley County had erupted into flames and toppled, leaving three workers badly burned. “I was a human torch,” said the driller, Andrew J. Rohr.
Blowouts represent the riskiest failure in the oil business. Yet, despite these serious injuries and some 115,000 gallons spilled in those first 10 blowouts, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the drilling and production of oil and gas, did not penalize Continental until the 11th.
In 2011, Andrew J. Rohr and two other workers were badly burned when a towering derrick erupted into flames and toppled. “I was a human torch,” Mr. Rohr said.
The commission — the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner — imposed a $75,000 penalty. Earlier this year, though, the commission, as it often does, suspended 90 percent of the fine, settling for $7,500 after Continental blamed “an irresponsible supervisor” — just as it had blamed Mr. Rohr and his crew, contract workers, for the blowout that left them traumatized.
Since 2006, when advances in hydraulic fracturing — fracking — and horizontal drilling began unlocking a trove of sweet crude oil in the Bakken shale formation, North Dakota has shed its identity as an agricultural state in decline to become an oil powerhouse second only to Texas. A small state that believes in small government, it took on the oversight of a multibillion-dollar industry with a slender regulatory system built on neighborly trust, verbal warnings and second chances.
In recent years, as the boom really exploded, the number of reported spills, leaks, fires and blowouts has soared, with an increase in spillage that outpaces the increase in oil production, an investigation by The New York Times found. Yet, even as the state has hired more oil field inspectors and imposed new regulations, forgiveness remains embedded in the Industrial Commission’s approach to an industry that has given North Dakota the fastest-growing economy and lowest jobless rate in the country.
For those who champion fossil fuels as the key to America’s energy independence, North Dakota is an unrivaled success, a place where fracking has provoked little of the divisive environmental debate that takes place elsewhere. Its state leaders rarely mention the underside of the boom and do not release even summary statistics about environmental incidents and enforcement measures.
Over the past nine months, using previously undisclosed and unanalyzed records, bolstered by scores of interviews in North Dakota, The Times has pieced together a detailed accounting of the industry’s environmental record and the state’s approach to managing the “carbon rush.”
The Times found that the Industrial Commission wields its power to penalize the industry only as a last resort. It rarely pursues formal complaints and typically settles those for about 10 percent of the assessed penalties. Since 2006, the commission has collected an estimated $1.1 million in fines. This is a pittance compared with the $33 million (including some reimbursements for cleanups) collected by Texas’ equivalent authority over roughly the same period, when Texas produced four times the oil.
“We’re spoiling the child by sparing the rod,” said Daryl Peterson, a farmer who has filed a complaint seeking to compel the state to punish oil companies for spills that contaminated his land. “We should be using the sword, not the feather.”
North Dakota’s oil and gas regulatory setup is highly unusual in that it puts three top elected officials directly in charge of an industry that, through its executives and political action committees, can and does contribute to the officials’ campaigns. Mr. Hamm and other Continental officials, for instance, have contributed $39,900 to the commissioners since 2010. John B. Hess, chief executive of Hess Oil, the state’s second-biggest oil producer, contributed $25,000 to Gov. Jack Dalrymple in 2012.
State regulators say they deliberately choose a collaborative rather than punitive approach because they view the large independent companies that dominate the Bakken as responsible and as their necessary allies in policing the oil fields. They prefer to work alongside industry to develop new guidelines or regulations when problems like overflowing waste, radioactive waste, leaking pipelines, and flaring gas become too glaring to ignore.
Mr. Dalrymple’s office said in a statement: “The North Dakota Industrial Commission has adopted some of the most stringent oil and gas production regulations in the country to enhance protections for our water, air and land. At the same time, the state has significantly increased staffing to enforce environmental protections. Our track record is one of increased regulation and oversight.”
Researchers who study government enforcement generally conclude that “the cooperative approach doesn’t seem to generate results” while “the evidence shows that increased monitoring and increased enforcement will reduce the incidence of oil spills,” said Mark A. Cohen, a Vanderbilt University professor who led a team advising the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.
With spills steadily rising in North Dakota, evidence gathered by The Times suggests that the cooperative approach is not working that well for the state, where the Industrial Commission shares industry oversight with the state’s Health Department and federal agencies.
One environmental incident for every 11 wells in 2006, for instance, became one for every six last year, The Times found.
Through early October of this year, companies reported 3.8 million gallons spilled, nearly as much as in 2011 and 2012 combined.
Over all, more than 18.4 million gallons of oils and chemicals spilled, leaked or misted into the air, soil and waters of North Dakota from 2006 through early October 2014. (In addition, the oil industry reported spilling 5.2 million gallons of nontoxic substances, mostly fresh water, which can alter the environment and carry contaminants.)
The spill numbers derive from estimates, and sometimes serious underestimates, reported to the state by the industry. State officials, who rarely discuss them publicly, sometimes use them to present a rosier image. Over the summer, speaking to farmers in the town of Antler, Lynn D. Helms, the director of the Department of Mineral Resources, announced “a little bit of good news”: The spill rate per well was “steady or down.” In fact, the rate has risen sharply since the early days of the boom.
Presented with The Times’s data analysis, and asked if the state was doing an effective job at preventing spills, Mr. Helms struck a more sober note. “We’re doing O.K.,” he said. “We’re not doing great.”
He noted it is a federal agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, that regulates oil transmission pipelines. “You can’t use the spills P.H.M.S.A. was responsible for and conclude my approach to regulation is not working,” he said.
Oil and Wastewater Spills
More than 18 million gallons of oil and toxic wastewater were spilled in North Dakota from January 2006 to October 2014. Most individual spills were contained to the immediate drilling area, but many of the largest spills polluted surrounding farms and waterways.
Indeed, as the tangle of buried pipelines has grown, there have been no federal pipeline inspectors based in North Dakota. But there have been no state inspectors, either, to oversee the much larger network of gathering pipelines unregulated by the federal government — a fount of many spills.
Penalizing companies for every violation is imprudent and can be counterproductive, Mr. Helms said, potentially “leaving the citizens of North Dakota with enormous liabilities on their hands when bankrupt operators walk away.”
Continental Resources hardly seems likely to walk away from its 1.2 million leased acres in the Bakken. It has reaped substantial profit from the boom, with $2.8 billion in net income from 2006 through 2013.
But the company, which has a former North Dakota governor on its board, has been treated with leniency by the Industrial Commission.
From 2006 through August, it reported more spills and environmental incidents (937) and a greater volume of spillage (1.6 million gallons) than any other operator. It spilled more per barrel of oil produced than any of the state’s other major producers. Since 2006, however, the company has paid the Industrial Commission $20,000 out of $222,000 in assessed fines.
Continental said in a written response to questions that it was misleading to compare its spill record with that of other operators because “we are not aware other operators report spills as transparently and proactively as we do.” It said that it had recovered the majority of what it spilled, and that penalty reductions came from providing the Industrial Commission “with precisely the information it needs to enforce its regulations fairly.”
What Continental paid Mr. Rohr, the injured driller, is guarded by a confidentiality agreement negotiated after a jury was impaneled for a trial this September. His wife, Winnie, said she wished the trial had gone forward “so the truth could come out, but we just didn’t have enough power to fight them.”
Looking back now, one thing gnaws at her.
“You know what really bothered me?” Mrs. Rohr said. “Harold Hamm flew up to see the damage to the rig but didn’t go see the guys who were burned.”
Oil wells, shown in yellow, cover the agricultural landscape. Most have been built since 2006.
Thousands of lines drilled underground connect the fracking operations to surface wells.
Embracing the Oil Industry as Economic Salvation
Given the state’s history of population loss and economic decline, state officials delighted in the arrival of oil companies eager to exploit the tremendous untapped potential of the primeval Bakken formation deep beneath the sweeping prairies and rugged badlands of western North Dakota.
Especially during the first years, officials were anxious that this oil boom, like previous ones, could be fleeting, that oil companies, if not embraced, could shift their rigs and capital investment to fields with less severe winters and better access to markets.
“There was a mentality that we should be helping things along, not getting in the way with regulations,” said Todd Sattler, a lawyer who served as a state oil and gas hearing officer through mid-2011. “It wasn’t blatant disregard for bad things, just permissive.”
Mr. Sattler said he tried to establish a protocol for field investigations, preparing a three-page checklist of procedures, including how to conduct witness interviews. The response from the state’s chief inspector, he said, was: “I’m not going to be a cop out there, Todd.”
In 2006, the Industrial Commission issued 419 drilling permits, processing applications in five days. By 2011, when it handed out 1,927 permits, it was still managing to issue them in 10 days. At that point, concerned that the Environmental Protection Agency might establish a moratorium on fracking — the legislature set aside $1 million to sue the E.P.A. — there was a desire to establish facts on the ground.
Some officials in western North Dakota challenged the accelerating pace. “It was so ragtag and breathless,” said Dan Kalil, the Williams County Commission chairman. “Infrastructure in every facet wasn’t able to keep up.”
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said: “It’s easy to say it’s been too fast, too much. But this is what North Dakotans have hoped for, prayed for.” Investors from all over the country are now drawn to tiny, remote places like Watford City, where “there wasn’t a damn thing” seven years ago, he said.
“We’ve got the largest-producing Cinnabon anywhere in the world,” he said. (The Williston Cinnabon, more precisely, has the highest sales in a travel plaza, the company said.)
In the first five years, the “slow, nasty drip, drip, drip” of routine spills — as Edmund Baker, environmental director for the Fort Berthold Reservation in the heart of the oil patch, calls it — went largely unnoticed and sometimes unreported to the authorities.
In the spring thaw of 2011, however, after a winter of record snowfall, scores of oil waste pits overflowed at once. The large, open pits, adjacent to rigs throughout the Bakken at that point, disgorged oil-based drilling mud that mixed with snowmelt and streamed across farmland and into stock ponds, creeks and river tributaries.
Farmers were horrified; the local news media took note. And, in concert with the development of a new regulation outlawing liquid waste pits, the Industrial Commission undertook its first — and so far only — crackdown on spills. It filed several dozen formal complaints against companies that, Mr. Helms said, had defied the Mineral Resources Department’s warning to take precautions to prevent the predicted overflows.
Hess Oil was one target. It paid its fines in full: $112,500.
Continental, like some other companies, disputed its responsibility.
Its lawyer, a former counsel to the Industrial Commission, proposed that consent agreements state that the overflows were caused by unforeseeable extreme weather. Instead, the agreements attributed the violations “in part” to bad weather “unforeseen by Continental.”
Still, the Industrial Commission accepted $12,500 rather than $125,000.
That fall, at a commission meeting in Bismarck, Mr. Helms explained the logic behind the waste pit settlements.
Most companies would make “a voluntary 10 percent payment” and 90 percent would be suspended for a year, during which the operator would have to “keep completely clean” of the offense, Mr. Helms said, according to the meeting minutes. This works, he added, because “keeping that 90 percent hanging over their head for a year creates a culture change within the company.”
Mr. Helms said this had been departmental practice since the early 2000s when officials were trying to prod Earl Schwartz of GoFor Oil — his logo was a gopher in a hard hat — to plug some wells and start production on others.
Sarah Vogel, a former Industrial Commission member, said she considered it a startling admission that current policy was based on “the treatment of a small wildcatter from an earlier era.”
“It’s absurd to compare an Earl Schwartz to a Hess or any of these other enormous companies worth billions,” she said. “To me, announcing publicly that it is your practice to suspend the bulk of all fines makes a mockery of the whole enforcement system. Should we tell the general public that if they’re caught speeding, the fine is $100, but they only have to pay $10? It’s an invitation to violate the law.”
Bearded and deliberative, Mr. Helms is a petroleum engineer by trade, with a hand that bears the burn scars of an industrial accident. The state’s senior oil official since 2005, he previously worked at Texaco for two years and at Hess for 18.
To his critics, Mr. Helms personifies a cozy relationship between the commission and oil companies. His dual mission heightens this, they say, as he is compelled by statute both to promote “the greatest possible economic recovery of oil and gas” and to enforce regulations.
Mr. Helms, however, said that his background gives him access and authority, and that his job is to promote responsible development, not the industry.
“In order to effectively do that I have to be on a first-name basis with C.E.O.s and managers,” he said. “If they didn’t trust me, and if they expected every time they made a mistake they were going to get slapped with a great big fine or be singled out or profiled, I wouldn’t get straight answers.”
The commission has imposed its stiffest penalties on smaller companies. Last year, it fined Halek Operating, whose leader had a history of swindling investors in Texas, a record $1.5 million for a defective waste disposal well that threatened a town’s water supply. But Halek has gone out of business, and the state is unlikely to obtain more than the $140,000 in bonds it has seized.
Mr. Helms said that problems in the oil patch were often the fault not of the major companies but of the contractors who do their physical labor.
“The large independents — the bread and butter of the North Dakota oil industry — really understand their social license to operate and really try to emphasize environment, health and safety,” he said. “But there’s a disconnect.”
L. David Glatt, Mr. Helms’s counterpart in the Health Department’s environmental division, has voiced the same sentiment. Though the state’s chief environmental regulator, he described himself on a radio show last year as “not a regulations guy” — after the host said that “the word ‘regulation’ is like Lucifer” in North Dakota.
Before the boom, Mr. Glatt said in an interview, the Health Department had “a very hands-on, personalized approach, going out and helping people solve their problems.”
“Now with the oil boom bringing in people who are just here to make a living or make money,” he said, “we are being forced to change our regulatory approach to in some cases a very heavy-handed one, which is a paradigm shift for us.”
Judging by the data, the Health Department, overseen by civil servants and not elected officials, appears to have been tougher on the oil industry than the Industrial Commission has. It has collected over three-quarters of the fines levied, amounting to at least $4.1 million since 2006.
Still, most of that revenue derived from a single industrywide enforcement action that, Mr. Glatt said, the industry itself requested.
After years of underestimating volatile emissions from its oil storage tanks in the Bakken and allowing them to vent directly into the air, the industry “self-reported” the potential pollution and safety problem to the government.
A task force was formed; the companies devised a new model for estimating the emissions and pledged to control them through devices. And then they made a request: “They wanted fines to be collected by the state to reduce their exposure to lawsuits,” Mr. Glatt said. “We said, ‘Sure, we’d be more than happy to take your money.’ ”
The Health Department did not publicize that it collected record penalties for these violations last year: $2.64 million, including unprecedented sums like $418,500 from Hess and $305,400 from Continental.
“We are not wired like that,” Mr. Glatt said. “It goes to the fact that, honestly, when I get to the point where I have to collect a penalty, I look at that as a failure on our part.”
At her isolated farmhouse near Tioga, Patricia Jensen disarms guests — pipeline executives, oil spill cleaners — with a glistening berry pie fresh from the oven. She and her husband, Steven, are firm but nonconfrontational in their approach to what he calls the “ecological nightmare” in the backyard of the family’s century-old homestead.
“We’ve kind of taken a route of not being too sour, but yet we’re really concerned,” Mr. Jensen said.
What happened to them last fall — the largest on-land oil spill in American history — confronted North Dakota with the potential costs of the boom.
It shined a light on the state government’s lack of transparency when it went unreported to the public for 11 days. It raised awareness that spills of all magnitudes were daily and routine. It highlighted the inadequacy of pipeline monitoring.
And it made clear that even in the worst cases the authorities are hesitant to use punitive sanctions. More than a year after the spill, neither the federal nor the state government has penalized the company responsible, Tesoro Logistics of San Antonio.
“Clearly, they have impacted the groundwater system,” Mr. Glatt said. “There will be an enforcement action. But we use a carrot and stick approach. The carrot is if you get into it and clean it quickly, the stick won’t be as severe.”
Late last September, Mr. Jensen was harvesting waist-high durum wheat when he found his combine’s tires wet with an unmistakable sheen. His wife called the operator of a nearby well, which contacted Tesoro, and both companies immediately sent out representatives.
“It was dark out at this point,” Mrs. Jensen said. “We went to drive wide around what we thought was the spill and realized that we were not at the edge of it. We were still in it.”
Mr. Jensen continued: “There was a question of, well, whose line is it? It was squirting out of the ground. But the minute Tesoro shut its valve, there was a loud sucking sound.”
In its initial report, Tesoro seriously underestimated the contamination. A week and a half later, after a “subsurface assessment” request by the state, it tripled its estimate to 20,600 barrels, or 865,200 gallons. The lost oil had soaked a large stretch — equal to about six football fields — of the windswept land where the Jensens run cattle and rotate crops like sunflowers and sunshine-yellow canola.
The spill was publicly disclosed only after local reporters learned of it, provoking an outcry from environmentalists that led to the creation of a spills website.
In Tioga, a preliminary investigation found a small hole in the pipeline that appeared to have been caused by lightning, said the federal pipeline administration, whose final investigation has yet to be completed.
That cast the incident as an act of nature, but Tesoro officials now acknowledge that the hole had gone undetected for as long as two months.
“How do you lose over 20,000 barrels of oil and not realize it?” Mr. Glatt said. “That does kind of boggle the mind a little bit.”
In a statement to The Times, Tesoro expressed “deep regret.”
“Our systems did not prevent the spill, and we find that unacceptable,” it said. “We have put additional systems and controls in place and are committed to operating a safe pipeline system.”
Before the leak sprang in July 2013, Tesoro had not conducted an internal inspection of that segment of pipeline for eight years. Federal officials had last inspected the Tesoro network in North Dakota in 2010.
Pipeline leaks are not the most common cause of spills; valve or piping connection problems are, The Times found. But they spew the greatest volume of oil and wastewater and are the most likely to cause pollution.
Unlike several other major oil-producing states, North Dakota has until now relied on federal inspectors — based in Kansas City, Mo., 950 miles from Tioga — to monitor all its oil transmission lines, interstate and intrastate.
At the time of the spill, Brian Kalk, chairman of the state Public Service Commission, felt keenly frustrated, he said: “The company was not as forthright as they should have been. Everybody in the state was asking what’s going on, and I didn’t have jurisdiction on this pipeline. I didn’t like it.”
As a result, Mr. Kalk’s commission is seeking to take over the monitoring of the crude oil transmission pipelines that travel solely within the state.
Transmission pipelines, which carry oil to market, are not the only problem, however. Until this year, no authority, federal or state, monitored what Mr. Helms estimates to be 18,000 miles of gathering pipelines, which transport oil and wastewater from wells to collection sites. In fact, the North Dakota government does not even know their precise locations.
But, with legislative permission, Mr. Helms is taking the gathering lines under his aegis and hiring the state’s first three hazardous-liquid pipeline inspectors.
In Tioga, the Jensens are inclined to look at the bright side, though 33 acres of their farmland have been cordoned off for an industrial cleanup operation expected to take at least another year. They are glad that their spill was oil, not wastewater — “There’s no cleaning up of that,” Mr. Jensen said — and hope it served as “an eye-opener.”
“The industry really wants to fight putting monitoring devices on pipelines, but it’s a no-brainer, seems like,” Mr. Jensen said. “The cost of monitoring equipment is obviously far cheaper than the cost of cleanup.”
Tesoro said the cleanup would cost more than an initial estimate of $4 million and “less than $25 million.” It hired a Canadian company, Nelson Environmental Remediation, to treat the contaminated soil by burning it on site in “thermal desorption units.”
“We’re kind of like the proctologists of the industry,” said Warren Nelson, the company’s vice president. “We deal with the problems nobody wants to talk about.”
“We’ve kind of taken a route of not being too sour, but yet we’re really concerned,” said Steven Jensen, whose farmland was covered by oil from a pipeline break.
“The industry really wants to fight putting monitoring devices on pipelines, but it’s a no-brainer, seems like,” Mr. Jensen said.
One August evening this year, after a barbecue dinner beneath an elaborate skull-and-antler chandelier in the Outlaw Shack at Antler Memorial Park, Mr. Helms and Mr. Glatt faced an audience of farmers disgruntled by the wastewater contamination of northwestern North Dakota.
Their corner of the state is like a cautionary tale. It is pocked with the remnants of 1980s oil production: abandoned wastewater ponds, some of which leached brine downward and outward, sterilizing the soil and shriveling crops. State officials have estimated it would cost $2 million each to reclaim what might amount to 1,000 ponds, said State Representative Marvin E. Nelson.
“Well, we have more than $2 billion in our Legacy Fund,” he said, referring to a set-aside fund containing oil tax revenues. “So why not take the legacy from this oil boom to fix the legacy from the last oil boom?”
Though the industry now disposes of oil field brine primarily by injecting it deep underground, it still needs to be transported to disposal wells and remains a stubborn pollution problem. For every barrel of oil, about 1.4 barrels of brine is produced, state officials say, and far more of it spills than does oil.
And while the industry calls it saltwater — “which makes it sound harmless, like something you would gargle with,” said Derrick Braaten, a lawyer who represents farmers — it is highly saline and can be laced with toxic metals and radioactive substances.
Three years ago, a farmer in the Antler audience experienced one of the largest oil field wastewater spills ever in North Dakota. A leaking wastewater line contaminated some 24 acres of farmland and eight surface ponds, and the site has yet to be restored to health.
After the leak was detected, cleanup crews pumped out two million gallons of severely contaminated water, with chloride levels 2,700 times higher than normal, and a generator was still pumping out contaminants this summer.
“Three years!” the farmer, Darwin Peterson, exclaimed at the meeting. “Three years, and this spill has been addressed in a Band-Aid fashion. Meanwhile, that 24 acres has expanded, with Mother Nature, to the neighbors. When is enough enough?”
State officials say the spill far exceeded the 12,600 gallons originally reported by the company, Petro Harvester, though it remains listed that way on the state’s spills website. Mr. Helms, in an email last year to his spokeswoman, Alison Ritter, estimated it at 332,000 gallons. Mr. Nelson, the legislator and agronomist, thinks it probably was three times that much.
The state has not yet penalized Petro Harvester.
Underlying the state’s regulatory posture is the premise that spills are all but inevitable and will increase alongside increases in drilling. But that is not a universally shared perspective.
“There’s this idea that spills are just the cost of doing business,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But there’s no technical justification for all these spills. And it’s not acceptable. It’s just not. It just shows how poorly the oil and gas industry is doing its job, and that nobody is making them do it right.”
To a skeptical audience in Antler, Mr. Helms proclaimed that North Dakota was “head and shoulders above our sister states” in the region for its vigilance as measured by the ratio of wells to inspectors, the frequency of inspections and the authority to fine up to $12,500 per offense a day.
He said that almost all problems found by his inspectors were corrected within 30 days of verbal warnings. Some 2,500 warnings were issued last year, Ms. Ritter said; only 4 percent resulted in a written violation and only nine complaints were filed (up from four in 2012).
In the park, Mr. Helms offered a boardroom-style PowerPoint presentation, including a graphic that he said contained the “good news” that the spill rate per well was steady or down.
His figures, however, provided to The Times later, show that the number of spills continued to grow faster than the number of wells — just not as fast as before. All told, the number of wells is up 200 percent and spills 650 percent since 2004.
The farmers in Antler said they assumed Mr. Helms’s spills data was comprehensive, but he told The Times later that he was including only spills under his jurisdiction. That omitted hundreds of incidents, including the Jensens’ spill and the 464,000 gallons of oil that gushed from a fiery train derailment near Casselton last December.
The most encouraging statistic, Mr. Helms told the farmers, was that a higher proportion of individual spills were being contained to production sites. That is true according to the numbers he uses. But, looking at the actual volume of pollutants and all reported spills, The Times found a decline, not an improvement, in spill containment — with 45 percent contained from 2011 to 2013, down from 62 percent in the previous three years.
Without engaging in any data analysis, the farmers in Antler were suspicious of the spill estimates because they were based on self-reporting by the industry. “You take the word of the operators? That’s your first mistake,” one man said, to laughter. They remarked that their own spills were often drastically underestimated on the state’s spills website.
Indeed, The Times found scores of cases on that website where the release of pollutants was not just undercounted but marked as zero. One supposedly zero-volume wastewater spill in Bottineau County last year required the removal of 600 dump-truck loads of contaminated soil.
For a North Dakotan trying to make sense of the state’s environmental and enforcement records, numbers are essentially inaccessible. The state spills site posts incidents in chronological order, without summary statistics, and it is not searchable. Oil and gas enforcement data is not made public at all, unlike in Texas, where the legislature mandates quarterly reports.
The Times built a database to analyze the state’s raw information from a variety of perspectives, including a company-by-company assessment. It found that companies in the Bakken spill at different rates. This suggests to some experts that companies could do more to prevent and minimize environmental incidents.
“Whether it’s maintaining equipment properly, monitoring equipment routinely, training individuals well, having backup equipment on site or having containment machinery — there are all kinds of things that can be done,” Professor Cohen of Vanderbilt said. “But they all require money and attention.”
Statoil, a multinational company whose largest shareholder is the Norwegian government, now ranks as the state’s fifth-biggest producer. With a professed goal of “zero incidents, zero releases,” according to Russell Rankin, its regional manager, it has reported no blowouts and has the best record in the state among the major producers in terms of how many gallons of oil it produces for each incident.
Based on volume, Statoil has produced 9,000 gallons of oil for every gallon of spillage; Continental has produced 3,500. Statoil contained some 70 percent of its spill volume to production sites. Continental contained less than half, The Times found.
In its written response, Continental disputed The Times’s “math,” but did not respond further after it was sent a spreadsheet of reported incidents that formed the basis for the findings.
Continental, which on its website calls itself “America’s oil champion,” said it has “implemented a corporate policy focused on reporting, spill reduction and, ultimately, elimination.” It emphasized that it was the largest producer in the Bakken and “managed the largest volume of liquids.” It underscored that “our diligent spill response efforts have enabled us to recover the majority of all volumes spilled.”
And, Continental said, The Times should not imply that “volumes spilled remain in the environment in perpetuity and that we and other operators have no concern for doing anything more than reporting spills as ‘an inevitable byproduct of oil production.’ ”
At a park in Antler this summer, Lynn D. Helms, the state’s senior oil official, addressed an audience of farmers disgruntled by wastewater contamination.
The Golden Egg
When the Skurupey well blew out last summer, Continental waited some 10 hours to notify the local authorities.
“They should have called us a lot sooner, but when these things happen, the oil companies pretty much take over, " said Sheriff Dave Jurgens of Billings County. “They have their own security, and they don’t let anybody on location, unless you’re with Continental or the state Industrial Commission. And I totally understand why. It’s specialized-type stuff.”
The public never knew the blowout had occurred because the well, like many new wells, had been granted confidential status by the state for competitive reasons; almost everything except its existence was off the record for six months.
Oil, water and chemicals shot 40 feet into the air from the wellhead but did not ignite. One worker was injured with a broken finger and bruises to his head and chest, the sheriff said. “They didn’t call an ambulance, just put him in a pickup and took him to the E.R.,” he said. “That was not very wise on their part.”
The oil misted over hundreds of acres, contaminating hundreds of bales of hay and alfalfa fields.
“They redid the land, washed all the tanks,” Mrs. Skurupey said. “Continental was super-nice. They left no stones unturned, as far as I was concerned. They paid us all for damages, and we signed agreements that we wouldn’t sue.”
Defending itself against the commission’s enforcement action this year, Continental argued that its own investigation revealed that “an irresponsible supervisor’s callous disregard of” its “well-established standard operating procedures” caused the Skurupey blowout.
At the Williston courthouse in September, Continental’s lawyer, Steven J. Adams of Tulsa, Okla., placed the responsibility for the previous blowout in Golden Valley County squarely on Mr. Rohr and his crew, who worked for Cyclone Drilling of Wyoming.
“It was the Cyclone crew that failed to do its job,” he told the jury.
Mr. Rohr’s lawyer, Justin L. Williams of Corpus Christi, Tex., opened by suggesting that Continental prized speed over safety: “Pedal to the metal, no brakes, lives shattered.”
Mr. Rohr, the injured driller, sued Continental Resources. The case was settled. His wife, Winnie, said she wished the trial had gone forward “so the truth could come out, but we just didn’t have enough power to fight them.”
During the voir dire process, many prospective jurors had revealed just how interwoven their lives were not only with the oil industry, but also with Continental. Some had worked for or done business with Continental; others owned its stock or received royalty checks from Continental wells.
Asked if they had strong feelings about the oil boom, almost all, even those who saw the positive, raised their hands to say they thought it had had negative consequences, too. A landowner referred to oil sludge buried and flares burning on her property, a nurse to injured oil workers treated at her clinic, an oil field technician to a “hurry up and wait world” that put profits first.
The next morning, a settlement was reached.
Later, in a nearby hotel, sitting with his lawyers, his wife and a former co-worker, Mr. Rohr lifted his T-shirt to reveal what he had been prepared to show the jury: his pink, waffled back, patched together through skin grafts after the rig at the Beaver Creek State 1-36H well exploded into flames on July 24, 2011.
“My memories of it are bad,” he said. “I seen a big, bright, white light, and I didn’t think I’d make it out. And then that big blast hit me. I was a big ball of flame, running out of there, my safety glasses melting around my eyes. I thought I was blind. Dying.”
Mr. Rohr, who is called A.J., stared into his coffee cup, crying.
Erick Hartse, 23, who had been his assistant driller and escaped injury in the blowout, winced. “I have a lot of guilt,” he said. “I sent A.J. down to check the inside choke that day. It was per our blowout procedures, but I was the last one to see this guy unhurt, unscathed.”
Mr. Rohr and two colleagues were airlifted to a burn center in Minneapolis. With serious burns over 60 percent of his body. Mr. Rohr spent a month hospitalized. Still in constant pain and reliant on painkillers, he has not returned to the oil fields, the only job he has ever known.
The two men and their boss, Wally Dschaak, said they thought from the start that the well, situated in a remote, serene spot about a mile from the Little Missouri River, was going to give them trouble.
“From the day we moved onto that miserable, slimy, dirty location, things had been fighting us,” Mr. Hartse said.
Mr. Dschaak said, “That well was one step away from getting out of control at all times.”
Continental, which declined to discuss the case, imported oil fire specialists from Texas to extinguish the blaze. Later, Cyclone sent Mr. Hartse to Wyoming to help build a replacement rig, he said, but did not allow him to accompany it back to North Dakota. “Continental wanted no part of anybody who was there that day,” Mr. Hartse said.
“I understood Cyclone’s position,” he added. “You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”
The House That Kochs Bought Passes Bill Muzzling EPA Scientists
Saturday, November, 22nd, 2014, 2:00 pm
For many Americans it is stunning that in the 21st Century there is a vibrant anti-science movement, especially in a highly technological nation. Of course, there is a reason two specific groups hate science and it is either because it debunks their superstition and mythos, or exposes their dirty industry practices as detrimental to the nation’s security and the people’s health. Republicans, particularly those beholden to the fossil fuel industry, claim that since they are “not scientists,” they can’t comment on, or accept, that fossil fuel emissions are responsible for anthropogenic climate change threatening the nation’s health and security, and now they are attempting “real scientists” who can explain climate change.
On Tuesday, to ensure that the “right kind of scientists” are doling out advice on environmental protections, Republicans in the House passed legislation to guarantee that oil industry scientists loyal to the Kochs, and not independent scientists, serve on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board. The rule change prohibits scientists not in the employ of the oil industry from talking about, or giving advice based on, independent scientific research, and prevents them from applying for grants from the EPA for further research.
The bill does, however, make it easier for “scientists” with financial ties to big oil and corporations to serve on the SAB and set environmental policy. The EPA, and the SAB, already allows some scientists and advisors with oil industry “expertise” to serve on the board, but the bill’s sponsor, Chris Stewart (R-UT) says it is not enough because the Koch brothers’ interests cannot control the direction of the EPA; his legislation remedies that.
The bill, the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, fulfills all of the industry, and Republicans’ requirements for their vision of environmental policy. Stewart has never concealed his profound distrust of scientists, an ardent hatred of the EPA, and support for the oil and gas industry bordering on religious fanaticism; a typical Republican. In fact, the Mormon Stewart not only disbelieves real science proving the existence of climate change, he openly wants and has called for, like most Republicans, the summary elimination of the EPA over something related to faith.
According to Stewart, the SAB required a Koch-inspired change and oil industry-financed “scientists” to counterbalance those other experts for the sake of transparency. He said “We’re losing valuable insight and valuable guidance because we don’t include them, (oil industry-funded) scientists in the process” of advising on environmental policies. Democrats in the House did not believe Stewart’s motivation had anything whatsoever to do with transparency and everything to do with “balancing” scientific reality with oil industry fallacies.
Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) was blunt in saying, “I get it, you don’t like science. And you don’t like science that interferes with the interests of your corporate clients. But we need science to protect public health and the environment.” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson concurred with McGovern and said, “The supposed intent of the bill is to improve the process of selecting advisors, but in reality, the bill would allow the board to be stacked with industry representatives, while making it more difficult for academics to serve. It benefits no one but the industry, and it harms public health.” That is, after all, the intent of the bill that Americans are going to see a lot more of when Republicans begin repaying the Koch brothers for their multimillion dollar investment in buying Congress.
Real scientists, various environmental groups, and real health experts, the people protecting Americans, rightly cited the real intent of the Koch-inspired bill; “compromise the scientific independence of the SAB and EPA,” and at the least “increase the length of time it takes the EPA to implement clean air and water regulations,” and if Republicans can fulfill the Koch’s wildest dreams, make it impossible for the Environmental Protection Agency to function. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), real academics, fervently came out against the Koch bill and were outraged that the bill prohibits real scientists on the SAB from discussing peer-reviewed research they may have been involved or have an academic interest in such as the effect of carbon emissions on climate change.
In a letter to Congress prior to the bill’s passage, the UCS director Andrew A. Rosenberg wrote that, “This bill effectively turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head, with the bizarre presumption that corporate experts with direct financial interests are not conflicted while academics who work on these issues are. Of course, a scientist with expertise on topics the Science Advisory Board addresses likely will have done peer-reviewed studies on that topic. That makes the scientist’s evaluation more valuable, not less.” But Mr. Rosenberg fails to understand that valuable scientific evaluation is exactly what the Koch-Republicans do not want; or they would not have passed a bill prohibiting real scientists from both serving on the SAB or discussing important scientifically-researched empirical data as it relates to environmental protections.
The only good news, thus far, is that in the current incarnation of the Senate, there is no companion oil industry bill to take up. That will surely change when Republicans begin doling out remunerative gifts to the Koch’s for funding their campaigns and handing them control of the Senate. Also, in what is proving to be one of the lone champions for protecting the environment, national security, and Americans’ health, the Obama Administration has pledged to veto the bill if it makes it to the President’s desk. However, now that the Koch brothers control of both houses of Congress, there will be a flood of Republican legislation either muzzling real scientists or dispensing of the one agency protecting Americans health, air, and water; the EPA.
Extreme weather could be ‘new climate normal’
International Business Times
23 Nov 2014 at 19:26 ET
The World Bank Sunday warned extreme weather will become the "new climate normal," increasing the risk of world instability. The report, "Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal," analyzes the impact of warming of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (3.6 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels on crops and coastlines.
“Today’s report confirms what scientists have been saying -- past emissions have set an unavoidable course to warming over the next two decades, which will affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people the most,” Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, said in a press release accompanying the report.
Kim noted record-breaking temperatures already are being observed and are creating both drought-stricken and extreme rainfall areas. Kim said action still can be taken to mitigate the situation and urged world leaders to embrace such solutions as carbon pricing and policy choices that "shift investment to clean public transport, cleaner energy and more energy efficient factories, buildings and appliances."
The report was prepared by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. It found rising temperatures threaten the health and livelihoods of the most vulnerable populations, exacerbating problems in every region.
Extreme heat is the biggest problem, the report found, because it can reduce crop yields, negatively impacting food security and future economic growth as well as economic development, social stability and well-being.
The report predicts a possible reduction of 70 percent to the Brazilian soybean crop, reduced water supplies in the Middle East and North Africa, and melting glaciers in the western Balkans and Central Asia. There's also a chance of increased methane emissions in the 20 percent to 30 percent range, the report said.
“The report makes crystal clear that we cannot continue down the current path of unchecked, growing emissions,” Rachel Kyte, World Bank Group vice president and special envoy for climate change.
"We need the political will to make this happen.”
Where Oil and Politics Mix
After an unusual land deal, a giant spill and a tanker-train explosion, anxiety began to ripple across the North Dakota prairie.
By DEBORAH SONTAG
NOV. 23, 2014
TIOGA, N.D. — In late June, as black and gold balloons bobbed above black and gold tables with oil-rig centerpieces, the theme song from “Dallas” warmed up the crowd for the “One Million Barrels, One Million Thanks” celebration.
North Dakota took on the oversight of a multibillion-dollar oil industry with a regulatory system built on trust, warnings and second chances. Nov. 22, 2014
The mood was giddy. Halliburton served barbecued crawfish from Louisiana. A commemorative firearms dealer hawked a “one-million barrel” shotgun emblazoned with the slogan “Oil Can!” Mrs. North Dakota, in banner and crown, posed for pictures. The Texas Flying Legends performed an airshow backlit by a leaping flare of burning gas. And Gov. Jack Dalrymple was the featured guest.
Traveling through the “economically struggling” nation, Mr. Dalrymple told the crowd, he encountered many people who asked, “Jack, what the heck are you doing out there in North Dakota?” to create the fastest-growing economy, lowest unemployment rate and (according to one survey) happiest population.
“And I enjoy explaining to them, ‘Yes, the oil boom is a big, big help,' ” he said.
Outsiders, he explained, simply need to be educated out of their fear of fracking: “There is a way to explain it that really relaxes people, that makes them understand this is not a dangerous thing that we’re doing out here, that it’s really very well managed and very safe and really the key to the future of not only North Dakota but really our entire nation.”
Tioga, population 3,000, welcomed North Dakota’s first well in 1951, more than a half-century before hydraulic fracturing liberated the “tight oil” trapped in the Bakken shale formation. So it was fitting that Tioga ring in the daily production milestone that had ushered the Bakken into the rarefied company of historic oil fields worldwide.
But Tioga also claims another record: what is considered the largest on-land oil spill in recent American history. And only Brenda Jorgenson, 61, who attended “to hear what does not get said,” mentioned that one, sotto voce.
The million-barrel bash was devoid of protesters save for Ms. Jorgenson, a tall, slender grandmother who has two wells at her driveway’s end and three jars in her refrigerator containing blackened water that she said came from her faucet during the fracking process. She did not, however, utter a contrary word.
“I’m not that brave (or stupid) to protest among that,” she said in an email afterward. “I’ve said it before: we’re outgunned, outnumbered and out-suited.”
North Dakotans do not like to make a fuss. Until recently, those few who dared to challenge the brisk pace of oil development, the perceived laxity of government oversight or the despoliation of farmland were treated as killjoys. They were ignored, ridiculed, threatened, and paid settlements in exchange for silence.
But over the past year and some, the dynamic seemed to be shifting.
Satellite photos of western North Dakota at night, aglitter like a metropolis with lighted rigs and burning flares, crystallized its rapid transformation from tight-knit agricultural society to semi-industrialized oil powerhouse. Proposals to drill near historic places generated heated opposition. The giant oil spill in Tioga in September 2013 frightened people, as did the explosion months later of a derailed oil train, which sent black smoke mushrooming over a snowy plain.
Then, this year, North Dakotans learned of discovery after discovery of illegally dumped oil filter socks, the “used condoms” of the oil industry, which contain radiation dislodged from deep underground.
Suddenly a percolating anxiety came uncorked. “The worm is turning,” Timothy Q. Purdon, the United States attorney, said in April.
It was against this backdrop that on a brisk spring day David Schwalbe, a retired rancher, and his wife, Ellen Chaffee, a former university president, walked headlong into the wind on their way to an F.B.I. office in Fargo.
A mile-long oil train was rumbling through downtown. Wordlessly, Mr. Schwalbe tightened his grip on the black binders bearing what he considered evidence, based on an unusual deal involving his family’s land, that Governor Dalrymple had a corrupt relationship with the oil industry.
‘This has David kind of nervous,” Dr. Chaffee confided. “He comes from a very below-the-radar culture.”
A Potential Advantage for the Oil Industry
As a boy in the 1950s, Mr. Schwalbe scampered up and down the steep banks of Corral Creek, which flows from Killdeer Mountain into the Little Missouri River. His family homestead lay in the remote region where Theodore Roosevelt sought solitude in what he called the “desolate, grim beauty” of the Badlands.
Like many in his generation, Mr. Schwalbe took for granted the craggy buttes and rippling grasslands, the cottonwoods and poplars, the mule deer and mountain lions. He never anticipated a day when this singular landscape would be ravaged, in his view, by rigs, pumping units, waste pits and pipelines and when he would become an archetypal North Dakotan of a certain age, disheartened by what others saw as progress.
As he helped his father run cattle 11,000 feet above the Bakken formation, Mr. Schwalbe came to understand that the family ranch would never sustain his parents and their six adult children. After college, he settled in eastern North Dakota, returning home mostly for “brandings, hunting and holidays.”
Ellen Chaffee and her husband, David Schwalbe, gave the F.B.I. what they considered evidence of Governor Dalrymple’s corrupt relationship with the oil industry.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
When their father died, five Schwalbe siblings — David, Dennis, Donnie, Donnette and Dale — sold their shares of the ranch to their brother Delry. All six kept their rights to what lay beneath the surface, however. Just in case.
The Schwalbes were following the lead of Burlington Northern Railroad, which once owned every other tract in the area, the legacy of a federal land grant. The railroad eventually sold the surface but retained the minerals, which were managed by its energy company, Burlington Resources, now a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips.
“We figured they knew something we didn’t,” Mr. Schwalbe said.
Land has long been sliced and diced in North Dakota from generation to generation, with surface ownership severed from the ownership of underlying minerals like coal and oil. Given that mineral rights trump surface rights, this made many residents of western North Dakota feel trampled once the boom began.
In 2006, a land man for Marathon Oil offered to lease the Schwalbe siblings’ 480 acres of minerals for $100 an acre plus royalties on every sixth barrel of oil.
“Within a few years, people were getting 20, 30 times that and every fifth barrel,” Mr. Schwalbe said. But the Schwalbes did not expect “to see any oil come up out of that ground in our lifetime.”
Oil companies were just starting to combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing to tap into the mother lode of Bakken oil. “We didn’t really know yet about fracking,” he said.
The Schwalbes’ first well was drilled in 2008, their second the next year. Powerless to block the development, Mr. Schwalbe and his wife, nearing retirement, took some comfort in the extra income, the few thousand dollars a month.
Then that was threatened, too.
On June 20, 2011, the Schwalbes received a letter informing them that Burlington Resources intended to forge a 30,883.94-acre oil production unit that would effectively override their lease agreement with Marathon and subsume their mineral property. In the Bakken, such units are typically 1,280 acres.
The Schwalbes were instructed to sign a ratification agreement by August, when a hearing was scheduled on what some started calling “the mega-unit.” The mega-unit would include the Little Missouri State Park, a patchwork of private, state and federal land beloved for its rugged trails.
Initially perplexed by the thick document on their doorstep, the Schwalbes soon grasped a painful point: though they would be ceding control of their mineral property, their consent was not required. Only the owners of 60 percent of the unit’s minerals were needed for ratification, and Burlington, together with the federal government, already met that goal.
“That’s part of why they chose Corral Creek for their scheme,” Dr. Chaffee said. “They didn’t have to deal with a lot of fleas like us, the pesky citizens.”
The proposal had the potential to set an advantageous precedent for the oil industry.
As ConocoPhillips officials explained at the August hearing, they aimed to maximize oil recovery by being freed of the “artificial boundary lines” that require 200-foot setbacks from the borders of each standard production unit. Their plan would allow for 23 more wells; for 73,000 more barrels of oil per well; and for consolidated production that would reduce “surface disturbance,” truck traffic and air pollution. It was a proposal “for the common good,” they said.
Many of the “pesky citizens” were skeptical. “Basically this whole unit scenario is only good for one person, and that’s Burlington,” Leroy Fettig, a land and mineral owner, said at the hearing.
In normal units, oil leases expire after a set time if no drilling occurs and owners can then renegotiate on better terms or put them up for bid. But under the proposed unit, Mr. Fettig said, “You wouldn’t have to drill one additional well to hold all the acreage here theoretically for a very long period of time.”
He worried, too, he said, that Burlington would have unfettered access to a nearly 50-square-mile area and be able to situate well pads, roads and gathering pipelines without having to negotiate easements or rights of way.
“Mr. Fettig, you’re not an engineer, are you?” a lawyer for Burlington asked him. “You’re not a geologist?”
“I’m not a lawyer, either,” Mr. Fettig replied.
Mr. Schwalbe’s lawyers cautioned that he would see a significant drop in his monthly checks, as his royalties would be shared with all the mineral owners in the mega-unit, including ConocoPhillips itself. Down the road, he could recoup that loss, and then some, when wells were developed elsewhere in the unit. But he worried that if, say, oil prices dropped, he would not see that income in his lifetime.
Before the hearing, Mr. Schwalbe had approached Lynn D. Helms, director of the state’s Department of Mineral Resources, with a compromise: unitize the property in phases to be fairer to the owners of the dozen existing wells.
“I realize in the overall scope of things, my check is pretty small, but it’s got a Social Security check beat all to hell,” Mr. Schwalbe said at the hearing. “I’m hoping with the help of the commission this can be worked out equitably for everybody.”
Mr. Helms ultimately executes the policies of the three elected officials — the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, all Republicans — who make up the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry. Yet at their monthly meetings, he guides them calmly from vote to vote and rarely encounters dissent. A review by The New York Times of meeting minutes since 2011 found no failed motions concerning oil and gas.
“You feel as if the meetings are a performance, that everything’s sort of done under the table, with a lot of back-room deals,” said Wayde Schafer, the Sierra Club’s sole employee in North Dakota.
Private citizens were not the only ones concerned about the mega-unit. “Before we get all up in arms about it, we have a few questions about what the proposal is and if it is going to benefit us or not,” a state land official wrote to a state oil official in October 2011. “One of the things that has got us so upset is that they are playing this off as a ‘done deal.' ”
It is essentially a done deal, the oil official responded, saying he expected an order at the Nov. 21 commission meeting would “dispose of this case.”
The Nov. 21 vote was postponed.
On Dec. 16, Mr. Schwalbe received a notarized copy of an order signed by Mr. Helms on Dec. 5. Citing “issues in this case of such complexity that additional time is necessary for the commission to render a decision,” it continued the case for 45 days. Mr. Schwalbe breathed a sigh of relief.
Lynn D. Helms, the director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has a dual mission as both an oil industry promoter and its chief regulator.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
On Dec. 20, however, he got a call from his brother Donnie: The commission had taken up the matter after all, voting unanimously to approve the mega-unit.
“We were just dumbfounded,” Mr. Schwalbe said. “It seemed so sneaky. You know how sick a feeling it is when somebody takes your property away and gives it to somebody else? And you don’t even get a chance to be there and protest?”
Mr. Helms’s spokeswoman, Alison Ritter, said, “There’s nothing in that order that says we couldn’t act before the 45 days was up.”
Before the vote, Mr. Helms had recommended approval because, he said, the mega-unit would allow for more efficient drilling with fewer multiwell pads and storage tank batteries and “a much smaller impact on the park.” He also cited “one other major positive” — the recovery of an additional 15 million barrels of oil. During the long discussion that followed, the park was barely mentioned, though Mr. Helms did note that the development called for no tank batteries inside it.
In a statement to The Times, Governor Dalrymple’s office said the commission had acted “solely to preserve the Missouri State Park’s viewscape.”
Under the present development plan, there will be up to 28 wells and, despite what was said before the commission’s vote, three storage tank batteries inside park boundaries, Jesse Hanson, a state parks official, said. He called it “a significant intrusion.”
‘Reluctant Landowners Standing in the Way of Progress’
North Dakota’s small conservation movement has shied away from the confrontational approach that characterizes the antifracking movement elsewhere.
“We all feel we have to issue the apologia that we’re not anti-oil, we just want to see it done responsibly,” Dr. Chaffee said.
The industry, as a result, has not grappled with much opposition. “From a conservation standpoint, I can name most of those people,” said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.
In her split-level house overlooking the majestic White Earth River Valley, Brenda Jorgenson, for one, has been a persistent thorn in the side of industry and state officials.
“ 'Reluctant landowners’ is the phrase they use for people like us,” her husband, Richard Jorgenson, said, laughing. “Reluctant landowners standing in the way of progress.”
While the Schwalbes were battling the mega-unit, the Jorgensons were trying to get their dirty drinking water tested by the state and then challenging, unsuccessfully, the burial of a waste disposal pit they call a “toxic tomb” on their property. Later, also unsuccessfully, they fought the construction of a high-pressure gas pipeline in their fields.
“We had a human prayer line to block that pipeline,” Ms. Jorgenson said. “It’s like having a ticking bomb in your backyard.”
Ms. Jorgenson maintains photo albums that intermingle pictures of her grandchildren doing snow angels with those of fracking trucks advancing on her home. Relatives ask why she and her husband do not just move. “But that’s just what the oil companies want,” Ms. Jorgenson said. “They see us as the trespassers.”
One company, in fact, sued three activist landowners in 2011, seeking damages for trespassing after the men tried to document what they believed was the cover-up of a saltwater spill.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit, calling it an effort to “shut these people up.”
“It was a great result, which is kind of rare,” said Derrick Braaten, their lawyer.
When Mr. Purdon, the United States attorney, tried to hold oil companies accountable for dead migratory birds, the result was not as satisfactory.
For years, federal wildlife agents had been imploring oil companies to cover their waste pits; migratory birds sometimes dived or fell in, dying preventable deaths. But some companies preferred to absorb the cost of citations rather than invest in netting.
In 2011, Mr. Purdon decided firmer action was needed. In one sweep through the Bakken, Richard Grosz, a special agent for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, collected 28 dead birds from drilling sites. One, found submerged, had a rock tied to its neck: “They had tried to deep-six the evidence,” Mr. Grosz said.
Six oil companies were charged with misdemeanor violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Mr. Purdon said that within hours of the complaints being filed, he received a call from a friend with a message from top-ranking state officials: “If Tim thought he would be a federal judge someday, that’s done.”
Three companies signed plea agreements. The others fought the charges, and not just in court. During a presidential campaign debate, Mitt Romney, whose energy adviser was chief executive of one of those companies, Continental Resources, mocked the prosecution; The Wall Street Journal called Mr. Purdon “dodo prosecutor of the year.”
A federal judge dismissed the cases, saying the bird act was meant to address deliberate killing by hunters and poachers.
Since then, Mr. Grosz said, “we have not gone back out in the oil patch to look for these things. Birds are still being killed. But we’ve quit.”
A ‘Case of Such Complexity’ Suddenly Be comes a Done Deal
The mega-unit became a reality on Jan. 1, 2012. Mr. Schwalbe’s first royalty check was reduced by 95 percent.
For many months, Mr. Schwalbe and his wife stewed. Then Dr. Chaffee, apolitical during 15 years as president of state universities, decided to get partisan. She joined the Democratic ticket of State Senator Ryan Taylor, a fresh-faced rancher who faced an uphill battle against Mr. Dalrymple for an office under Republican control for two decades.
Mr. Dalrymple was running his own first race for governor, having ascended to the post in 2010 after his predecessor was elected to the United States Senate.
On the day Mr. Taylor announced Dr. Chaffee’s candidacy for lieutenant governor, Mr. Schwalbe stepped off the sidelines of what his wife called a “near-hermit existence.” His first campaign assignment was to study the opposition’s year-end financial disclosure report.
And there he found what he believed to be an explanation for why the mega-unit “case of such complexity” had gotten simpler after Mr. Helms signed the Dec. 5 continuation order.
On Dec. 5, the Exxon Mobil Corporation PAC contributed $600 to Mr. Dalrymple’s campaign. On Dec. 12, Harold G. Hamm, chief executive of Continental, gave $20,000. On Dec. 17, the Marathon Oil PAC gave $5,000. On Dec. 21, the day after the mega-unit vote, for which he was present, Continental’s Bismarck-based lawyer gave $5,000. On Dec. 27, Denbury Resources contributed $5,000.
All these companies held a working interest or lease ownership in the Corral Creek mega-unit. ConocoPhillips, which stood to profit the most, had contributed $1,000 through its PAC in October.
Ryan Taylor, at his ranch in Towner. Running as a Democrat, he lost a bid for governor in 2012 and for agriculture commissioner this year.
Jim Wilson/The New York Times
The governor’s office declined The Times’s requests to interview him, and provided a written statement. It did not verify or deny The Times’s calculation of contributions or respond to specific questions about allegations of conflicts of interest.
Over the campaign, Mr. Dalrymple would collect over $93,000 from those with a direct interest in the mega-unit and a total of about $550,000 from oil-related executives, lawyers and political action committees. That represented a quarter of the $2.16 million in contributions over $200 (the bar for disclosure) to Mr. Dalrymple.
Governors in top oil-producing states typically get industry contributions. In North Dakota, though, the governor’s relationship to those contributors’ interests is uniquely direct because he is chairman of the Industrial Commission.
In California, by contrast, the Department of Conservation supervises the industry. In Alaska, it is a commission appointed by the governor. In Texas, it is the elected Railroad Commission.
“North Dakota’s is a hugely defective setup,” said David C. Thompson, a lawyer in Grand Forks. “Our elected officials regulate companies they get contributions from and companies they own stock in. Nobody ever recuses himself; they just vote.”
In mid-2012, Mr. Schwalbe approached Mr. Thompson at a campaign event. The lawyer happened to be researching state corruption laws on behalf of Brad Crabtree, a Democratic candidate for the Public Service Commission, which, in addition to regulating utilities, oversees oil pipeline siting and mine reclamation.
Mr. Crabtree, who went on to lose, had declined to accept contributions from the energy industry and sought to shine a spotlight on “comprehensive, institutionalized conflict” in the way North Dakota’s regulators conducted business.
Mr. Thompson, meanwhile, discovered a Watergate-era bribery statute that made it a felony for public officials to accept “a thing of pecuniary value” from any “actor” with an imminent or pending proceeding before them. No quid pro quo was necessary; the mere possibility that the official’s “performance or nonperformance” of his duties could be affected made it a crime.
Therefore, Mr. Thompson concluded in a legal analysis posted on the blog NorthDecoder.com, Mr. Dalrymple, in the case of the mega-unit, had taken bribes.
That bombshell landed with a fizzle. The state media took no interest, Mr. Taylor said, and, “as a candidate behind in the polls, who would be accused of trying to make sheer political hay,” he declined to use the allegations.
Then Mr. Thompson got a call from Paul Sorum, a founder of North Dakota’s Tea Party running for governor as an independent.."He said, ‘Are you aware of the citizen-initiated grand jury process?' ” Mr. Thompson related. “You need 10 percent of voters” in a county to sign a petition.
A week before the election, a petition filed in Dunn County, where the mega-unit is, asked a judge to convene a grand jury to determine whether Mr. Dalrymple could be prosecuted for bribery.
On Election Day, Mr. Taylor lost by nearly 30 points. Even before he had formally announced his candidacy for governor, the State Legislature had eliminated two rural districts, one of them his. “That was a dirty deal,” he said.
A couple of weeks later, a judge dismissed the grand jury petition, finding a few signatures illegitimate.
The Seeds of a Resistance Movement
The conservationists of North Dakota often express nostalgia for the strong stance that former Gov. Arthur A. Link took during a coal-mining boom in the 1970s. He pledged to protect the state for future generations “when the landscape becomes quiet again.”
“When the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar, and when the last bulldozer has pushed the last spoil pile into place and the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain, let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say, ‘Our grandparents did their job well,' ” he said.
The current governor is better known for his business acumen than his rhetoric. John Stewart Dalrymple III, 66, is something of a patrician, a rarity in North Dakota. His state biography says he grew up “on the family farm in Casselton,” N.D., but he was born in Minneapolis and attended a private day school there before boarding at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and going on to Yale, like his father before him.
The 140-year-old family farm once stretched over 32,000 acres, making it “the largest cultivated farm in the world,” according to North Dakota State University archives. More recently, Dalrymple Farms has been one of the state’s largest recipients of federal commodity subsidies.
Mr. Dalrymple was more of an agribusinessman than the typical North Dakota farmer: “I’m not saying he never greased a combine, but his farm office was in the National Bank building in Casselton and he’d wear a white shirt to work,” said Bill Patrie, a specialist in rural cooperatives who worked with Mr. Dalrymple to establish a farmer-owned pasta co-op.
Mr. Dalrymple served as co-op chairman through eight years in the legislature and a decade as lieutenant governor. While lieutenant governor, he championed the cooperative’s conversion to an investor-owned firm in which he was a major shareholder, and then oversaw its sale to a Canadian conglomerate, making $3.77 million.
“In essence, Jack converted a quasi-public local institution into a personal, one-time profit maker and sold it to a multinational corporation,” Mr. Patrie said, adding, “I believe he used his public office for private gain.”
But Mr. Patrie said the local news media and farmers’ groups did not raise objections.
“We North Dakotans trust our politicians — even when they sell us out,” he said.
Many Democrats were incensed when Edward T. Schafer, a Republican former governor, toured the state in an oil industry-sponsored “Fix the Tax” bus in 2011, arguing that oil taxes should be lowered to prevent the boom from going bust. The effort failed; afterward, Mr. Schafer was named to the board of Continental Resources, and awarded a compensation package, mostly stock, valued at $700,000 that year.
According to Mr. Dalrymple’s 2012 statement of interests, he and his wife own oil stock themselves, including unspecified amounts in at least one company with regular business before his Industrial Commission: Exxon Mobil, a top state producer through its subsidiary XTO.
Because XTO was a working interest owner in the mega-unit, Mr. Schwalbe believed the governor himself could be said to have “owned a piece of the property.”
In early February 2013, Mr. Schwalbe filed a second grand jury petition.
At the same time, state legislators pushed for a higher bar for citizens to convene grand juries so that innocent people would not be subjected to criminal charges, as one legislator put it. They succeeded. And a judge threw out the second citizens’ petition.
Mr. Schwalbe felt defeated, but pockets of resistance were beginning to develop as the boom intensified.
Taking Steps to Assert Greater Authority
Early this year, an irritated crowd at a Mountrail County Commission meeting confronted Mr. Helms, the director of mineral resources, asking why state officials had approved an oil waste pit in the wellhead protection area for a municipal water supply.
Mr. Helms explained that his inspectors had had the wrong maps, adding, “We strive for perfection, but since we’re human, we have to settle for excellence.”
That came across as cavalier to the Rev. Carolyn Philstrom, a young Lutheran pastor, who shot off a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. “I baptize babies with that water,” she wrote, though she subsequently tempered her outspokenness because it bothered parishioners.
When the illegally dumped oil filter socks were discovered, Rick Schreiber, the director of solid waste for McKenzie County, became the rare official voicing outrage at what he called oil company recklessness and state inaction.
“I’m not here to make friends with the oil patch,” Mr. Schreiber said in February as trucks rolled over the radiation detector he had installed at his landfill. “If I’m the guy that has to beat the hornets’ nest with a stick, I’ll do it.”
This year, the Industrial Commission has gradually taken steps to assert greater authority over the industry.
After applications to drill near a 19th-century battlefield and near the Elkhorn Ranch in Theodore Roosevelt National Park stirred unusually heated public debate, the commission established special procedures including a public comment period for drilling on public, though not private, land near 18 “areas of interest.” The petroleum industry had resisted, cautioning that “radical environmentalists” would exploit the comment period to obstruct development. But conservationists saw the measure as a watered-down version of a proposal that already offered too little, too late.
Next, after more than a dozen mineral owners filed anti-flaring lawsuits, the commission moved to clamp down on a longstanding problem. Some 30 percent of the natural gas produced in the state — compared with less than 1 percent nationwide — was being treated as a byproduct of oil production and burned off.
At a hearing in April, Dr. Lyle Best, a pediatrician, said he lived downwind of tall flares that roared like jetliners and flickered light through his bedroom window.
“Our real annoyance, however, is the understanding that these two flares have burned off over 60 million cubic feet of natural gas in the past six months and are continuously wasting enough energy to heat hundreds of homes at the same time that many people in our country are sleeping on the street, and at least one North Dakotan died of hypothermia this winter,” he said. “This doesn’t even address the issue of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.”
When the commission voted in July to require “gas-capture plans” and impose production restrictions if companies did not meet them, Mr. Dalrymple said, “I hope that what we do today, we are serious about.”
And when QEP Resources petitioned to create its own mega-unit, Mr. Dalrymple dissented from the 2-to-1 vote of approval. In its statement, the governor’s office said the QEP mega-unit, unlike the Corral Creek one, would not have provided a “benefit to conservation efforts.” QEP later dropped its plan.
In April 2014, a cleanup crew equipped to handle hazardous radiation removed a large cache of filter socks illegally dumped inside an abandoned fuel station in Noonan, N.D.
At the entrance to the mega-unit, on the dirt access road built for the hundreds of trucks that now traverse what used to be pristine pastures, Mr. Schwalbe’s cousin, Candyce Kleemann, sat at the wheel of her pickup, photographs on her dashboard.
“These are the before pictures: before the invasion,” said Ms. Kleemann, who lives and ranches inside the unit. “When we fought the unit, they told us there would be minimal damage or changes. But it’s a different landscape. Look, that’s our new saltwater injection well.”
She pointed to a sign: “Danger: H2S. Poisonous gas.” And to another: “Caution: power lines.” Her own sign, proclaiming her land to be private property, made her snort.
“That one’s useless,” she said. “We’re even more powerless than surface owners in the rest of the oil patch. In this unit, oil can go wherever they want here, put roads and gathering lines wherever they want, bury crud in our ground. The state does not seem to care.”
In 2012, Ms. Kleemann’s husband, Robert, a Dunn County commissioner, complained to the state that the unit development plan was being modified, putting 11 wells within a half-mile of six homes.
When an official responded that the changes appeared necessary for topographical reasons, Mr. Kleemann wrote back, “I do not think you could understand our concerns unless we could put a drilling rig on each side of your house so you could listen to the clang of pipes, the roar of motors, the constant beep of the horn and be awakened in the morning to the driller giving orders over the bullhorn and you could try to sleep with the constant noise of Jake Brakes.”
State officials were more concerned that ConocoPhillips was not developing the unit as aggressively as promised. Now the pace has picked up, with several dozen wells drilled in 2013 and several dozen more this year.
In April, when the Schwalbes laid out their concerns to two F.B.I. agents in a windowless room in the Fargo federal building, they felt encouraged. The agents seemed apprehensive “because of the individual involved,” Mr. Schwalbe said, but gradually “their interest was piqued.”
“They thanked us for coming forward,” he said afterward, surprised.
In the summer, though, a final meeting with the agents left them disheartened. The investigation remained open, they were told, but prosecutors saw no federal case to be made.
Mr. Schwalbe, who had wagered that “this year is going to be better because people are starting to get mad,” was disappointed by the November elections, too.
His wife’s former running mate, Mr. Taylor, ran again, this time for agriculture commissioner, proposing that oil well setbacks from homes be increased to a quarter-mile from 500 feet and that pipelines be fitted with antispill devices. But he lost, as did a ballot initiative to set aside tax revenues for conservation. With considerable oil industry backing, the agriculture commissioner was re-elected, as was the attorney general, extending the mandate of the current Industrial Commission.
Mr. Schwalbe does not like to visit Corral Creek anymore. The landscape is, in his eyes, scarred, the tranquillity spoiled. His new outspokenness led him into an uncharacteristic public role as spokesman for a new group, North Dakota Rural Voters.
“I never thought I’d be involved in anything like this,” he said. “At my age, I thought we’d just slide through the rest of our lives. But at a certain point, it became a point of pride for me personally and me as a North Dakotan. I don’t like people taking things that don’t belong to them, not my money, not my property, not my state.”
North Dakota took on the oversight of a multibillion-dollar oil industry with a regulatory system built on trust, warnings and second chances.
In 2011, Andrew J. Rohr and two other workers were badly burned when a towering derrick erupted into flames and toppled. “I was a human torch,” Mr. Rohr said.
Michael Wines contributed reporting from Bismarck, N.D.
Sources: North Dakota Department of Health; analysis by The New York Times; Satellite imagery courtesy of Google; final image in flyover by Jim Wilson/The New York Times.
Produced by Gregor Aisch, Hannah Fairfield, John Niedermeyer, Matt Ruby and Jeremy White
Correction: November 24, 2014
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ryan Taylor, a Democratic State Senate leader who ran against Gov. Jack Dalrymple of North Dakota in 2012, had his Senate seat redistricted out of existence after he lost that election. His seat was eliminated in late 2011 as he was preparing to announce his candidacy.
Despite Persecution, Guardian of Lake Tai Spotlights China’s Polluters
By ANDREW JACOBSNOV. 23, 2014
The environmental activist Wu Lihong was jailed for speaking out about pollution in China’s Lake Tai. Now he is free, but he is still protesting the industrial waste that streams into the lake.
ZHOUTIE, China — By autumn, the stench of Lake Tai and the freakish green glow of its waters usually fade with the ebbing of the summer heat, but this year is different. Standing on a concrete embankment overlooking a fetid, floating array of plastic bottles, foam takeout containers, flip-flops and the occasional dead fish, Wu Lihong, the lake’s unofficial guardian, shook his head in disgust.
“If you jumped into this water, you’d shed a layer of skin,” he said one recent afternoon. “The government claims they are cleaning up the lake, but as you can see, it’s just not true.”
Seven years after a toxic algae bloom forced millions of people who depended on the lake to find alternative sources of drinking water, Lake Tai, which straddles two provinces in the Yangtze River delta, remains a pungent symbol of China’s inability to tackle some of its most serious environmental problems.
Since the 2007 crisis, which drew widespread domestic news media coverage and prompted a special meeting of the cabinet, the government has spent billions of dollars cleaning up the lake, the country’s third-largest freshwater body. But environmentalists say it has little to show for the money. Hundreds of chemical plants, textile mills and ceramics workshops continue to dump their noxious effluent into the waterways that feed into Lake Tai.
“Some progress has been made, but we haven’t yet reached a turning point,” said Ma Jun, one of the country’s leading environmentalists. “For many factories, the cost of violating the rules is lower than the cost of compliance.”
Also unchanged is the persecution of Mr. Wu, 46, a scrappy, self-taught environmentalist who spent three years in jail on what he said were trumped-up fraud charges — punishment, he said, for his dogged campaign against the factory owners and their local government allies, whom he blames for despoiling the lake.
Since emerging from prison in 2010, Mr. Wu has continued his advocacy work, prompting a predictable response from the authorities. He is subjected to periods of confinement at his home in Zhoutie, a village on Lake Tai. His cellphone is monitored by the police and he is barred from traveling beyond Yixing, the township in eastern Jiangsu Province that includes Zhoutie.
Plainclothes police officers often accompany him on shopping excursions, and surveillance cameras line the narrow road to his home. Vengeful officials, he said, have even stymied his efforts to find a job by warning away would-be employers. “If it wasn’t for the garden in front of my house, I’d probably starve,” said Mr. Wu, a short, pudgy-faced man who often sounds like he is shouting, even when indoors.
Reached by phone, an employee of the Zhoutie public security bureau denied that it curtailed Mr. Wu’s freedom.
The experiences of both Lake Tai and Mr. Wu speak volumes about the Chinese government’s often contradictory approach to environmental protection. Confronted by public anger over contaminated air, water and soil, the ruling Communist Party has sought to shutter obsolete steel mills, restrict the number of license plates available to big-city drivers, and recalibrate the economic-growth-at-all-costs criteria used to evaluate local officials. This year, Prime Minister Li Keqiang “declared war” on pollution in a speech to the national legislature.
But some local officials oppose policies they fear could close factories and eliminate jobs. They also prefer to deal with environmental problems their own way, if at all, which is why Mr. Wu ran into trouble with officials in Jiangsu, a relatively wealthy slice of coastal China that has prospered from its fecund, well-watered landscape but even more from industrial development, which has fouled the region’s rivers and canals.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, when he began noticing a sickly rainbow hue in the once-pristine creeks near his home, Mr. Wu began a campaign to name and shame polluting factories in Zhoutie. He collected water samples in plastic bottles, wrote letters to high-ranking environmental officials and invited television reporters to film how factories secretly discharged their wastewater at night.
In 2001, after local officials drained and dredged a canal that had been polluted by a dye plant in advance of an inspection tour from Beijing, Mr. Wu exposed their ruse — which included dumping carp into the canal and dispatching villagers with fishing rods to complete the Potemkin image of ecological recovery. In the years that followed, he became something of a media celebrity; in 2005, the National People’s Congress named him an “Environmental Warrior.”
Back in Yixing, which earns 80 percent of its tax revenue from local industry, officials were furious. In 2007, as he was preparing a lawsuit against the environmental bureau, Mr. Wu was arrested and charged with trying to blackmail a company in exchange for withholding accusations of wrongdoing. During his interrogation, Mr. Wu said, he was whipped with willow branches, burned with cigarettes and kept in solitary confinement with little to eat. “The abuse was more than I could take, so of course I signed the confession they had drawn up,” he later said.
Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future,” said environmental activists in China must walk a fine line, knowing when it is safe to push and when it is best to keep quiet. “Wu is a maverick, prone to say exactly what he thinks without considering the political consequences,” she said. “That is not the type of political participation that Beijing desires, even if he is right.”
That summer, shortly before he was put on trial, the industrial effluent flowing into Lake Tai from the 2,000 factories in the region reached a tipping point, prompting the algae bloom that forced officials in the nearby city of Wuxi to cut off water to two million residents.
Under the glare of a national spotlight, Jiangsu officials said they would spend more than $14 billion to clean up the lake and vowed to address the problem of toxic algae blooms within five years.
But the money, government researchers acknowledge, has had a negligible impact. According to the Lake Tai Basin Authority, 90 percent of water samples taken from the lake this summer were considered so toxic that contact with human skin was ill-advised. Wuxi, in the meantime, has found an alternative source for its drinking water.
In a recent interview with Xinhua Daily, Zhang Limin, deputy director of the Lake Tai Water Pollution Prevention Office, said the flood of contaminants had begun to level off, although it is still more than three times as much as the lake can absorb without killing most aquatic life.
Flushing the lake with water from the Yangtze River has improved water quality somewhat, though critics say it simply pushes pollution further downstream. These days, many polluters have built pipelines to centralized waste-treatment plants that are incapable of handling the flow. Others simply pipe waste directly into waterways through underground conduits that allow them to avoid detection.
But environmentalists say there is reason for hope. In April, the central government revised the nation’s environmental law for the first time since 1989, imposing steep fines on polluters and requiring companies to disclose pollution data. The regulations, which take effect in January, will also allow environmental groups to file public interest lawsuits against factories that break the law.
Mr. Ma, the environmentalist, said the new measures include important tools for cleaning up Lake Tai and other ailing bodies of water, but the key would be enforcement. “All it takes is the mayor or the head of a county saying, ‘You can’t touch this factory. It’s too important to the local economy,’ ” he said.
Mr. Wu said he was less hopeful, noting how little has changed in recent years despite intense pressure from Beijing and the billions of dollars spent. “A lot of that money ends up lining the pockets of local officials,” he said.
His outspokenness has taken a toll on his family, who have also been subjected to frequent harassment. Last year his daughter, Wu Yunlei, went to the United States on a tourist visa and promptly requested political asylum. “When I was younger, I didn’t understand what my father was doing and I was often angry about the trouble it caused us, but now I’ve come to appreciate it,” she said in an email.
Once content to focus on the environment, Mr. Wu now believes that healing his beloved lake requires more sweeping change. “If with all their wealth, the Communist Party can’t clean up this lake, it tells you the problem is much bigger,” he said. “I’ve come to realize the root of the problem is the system itself.”