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One of Our Last Links to the Wild World is in Danger

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By Dan Ritzman
OtherWords

Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the world’s last intact ecosystems, but dangerous oil exploration could soon spoil it.

arctic-methane-sea-ice-524bI can still remember the first time I saw tracks left behind by seismic testing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It was the mid-1990s and I had been guiding a group of people on a float trip across the coastal plain of the refuge towards the Arctic Ocean. After seven days of traveling through the wildest country I’d ever seen, I was out on a late evening walk and I saw what were clearly tire tracks crossing the tundra.

I couldn’t believe it. We were hundreds of miles from the nearest road or motorized vehicle, but there they were.

For those who’ve never been to the Arctic Refuge, it can be hard to imagine a place so far removed from the busy streets and office buildings most of us encounter every day.

One of the world’s last intact ecosystems, the Arctic Refuge is home to some of the most abundant and diverse wildlife anywhere in the world, including more than 200 wildlife species. Its coastal plain is where the porcupine caribou herd travel to birth their young and is the most important denning site for polar bears in the United States.

The 19 million acre refuge is one of the few places in the United States that has never seen the impact of Western society. There are no roads, buildings, or permanent structures of any kind there. For decades, this special place has been protected from industrial activity.

And yet, to this day, tracks left from seismic exploration that took place in the 1980s are still visible. Seeing this damage was jarring, to say the least — and it could soon get much worse.

After Congressional Republicans passed legislation opening up the refuge for oil and gas drilling last year, the Trump administration has rushed to sell off the coastal plain to the industry on an accelerated schedule.

The good news is that this push has been met with near-universal resistance. Hundreds of people turned out to protest the Department of the Interior’s hearings on the plan, and hundreds of thousands more submitted public comments opposing drilling.

This spring, a group of some of the world’s most significant investors urged oil and gas companies and major banks not to initiate any oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge. And legislation has already been introduced in Congress to walk back this dangerous plan.

Actual oil development in the Arctic Refuge could be years away, if it happens at all. But in the meantime, the administration is already getting ready to approve a permit for destructive seismic exploration, which could start as soon as December of this year.

Allowing this seismic testing to go forward would do severe and permanent damage to this sensitive wilderness before a single drill rig has ever been permitted.

Not only would it leave lasting scars on this treasured landscape, seismic activity would also threaten critical habitat for polar bears. The extensive noise, vibration, and disturbance could cause mother bears to flee their dens, leaving cubs to starve to death and this already threatened population to decline even further.

The Arctic Refuge is one of our last links to the unspoiled natural world and a source of hope for future generations — even for those who may never set foot there. I’ve been lucky to spend time in this one-of-a-kind place, and it’s given me a first-hand understanding of all that’s at stake in this dangerous push to open it up to the fossil fuel industry.

Time is running out to protect the Arctic. We must all speak out to ensure that this administration’s greed and recklessness don’t leave permanent scars in America’s refuge.

Dan Ritzman directs the Sierra Club’s Lands Water Wildlife Campaign. He’s been leading rafting trips through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for 25 years. Distributed by OtherWords.org.

This article is licensed, by OtherWords, under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative 3.0 License.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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