Monday, September 26, 2011

What do wild salmon, failed nuclear plants, and Google have in common?

This is a guest blog from ESC Member Organization Save Our Wild Salmon.

They all play a role in how the hugely complex Federal Columbia River Power System – and the agency that runs it, the Bonneville Power Administration – makes and spends money. 

That was the take-home message from a hearing held September 22nd in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power about a controversial bill, the Endangered Species Compliance and Transparency Act, or HR 1719.  The legislation would require federal power agencies such as Bonneville to estimate and report their direct and indirect costs of complying with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

While the bill is veiled in consumer “right-to-know” language, here’s what consumers should really know: this bill isn’t about transparency.  Instead, HR 1719 would only create confusion (and perhaps ill-will toward protecting fish and wildlife) by distorting costs associated with ESA compliance.  

NW Energy Coalition executive director Sara Patton was among the witnesses who testified at yesterday’s hearing, and described HR 1719 as unnecessary (ESA costs are already readily available to utilities and members of the public from both BPA and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council); one-sided (it would only require the reporting of ESA costs, and not the immense benefits associated with fish and wildlife protection); and virtually impossible to implement (BPA is obligated by a myriad of federal laws and treaties to restore fish and wildlife; HR 1719 proposes no way to distinguish which costs are specifically linked to meeting the requirements of the ESA).

But perhaps most alarmingly, H.R. 1719 codifies a kind of “black market” accounting: by including indirect costs like foregone revenue associated with legally-required salmon protection measures (such as spilling water over the dams to help young fish reach the ocean), the bill states that BPA is entitled to money it could have earned had it violated federal law (a highly controversial practice that BPA currently employs). In other words, under H.R. 1719, power administrations would be entitled to claim lost revenue from power that’s illegal to generate in the first place. Plus, the inclusion of foregone revenue in ESA costs creates the very false impression that these costs are far higher than they are in real life.  Salmon have it tough enough already; they don’t need fuzzy math and phantom kilowatts muddying the waters even further.

But enough about what HR 1719 would do…let’s talk for a moment about what it wouldn’t do.  Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, captured the bill’s shortcomings perfectly when he asked the witnesses whether any of BPA’s other big-ticket items should be spelled out on utilities’ monthly power bills – after all, if we’re trying to inform consumers about their electricity costs, we should make sure all the relevant information is available to them.  As Rep. Markey pointed out, this should include BPA’s payments to retire the massive debt it absorbed when Washington State’s nuclear power system (“WPPSS”) collapsed under its own weight in the 1980s, a sum that clocks in at about $550 million a year, with almost $6 billion in debt still outstanding.  But when asked if BPA’s utility customers should receive this information on their monthly bills, two of the panel’s witnesses (who testified in support of HR 1719, citing the importance of transparency) demurred, saying they weren’t prepared to support the inclusion of any other costs beyond those associated with ESA compliance.  This laser-like focus on ESA costs to the exclusion of all others begs the question: does HR 1719 have an anti-ESA bias?  Just sayin’.

Rep. Markey grappled with this possibility by noting the recent migration of hi-tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, to the Pacific Northwest.  An excellent example is Google’s decision to site its power-thirsty server farm in The Dalles, where it has easy access to some of the most affordable electricity in the United States: BPA-marketed power from the Columbia River dams.  Rep. Markey asked NWEC’s Sara Patton, “Have you heard Google complain about the Endangered Species Act?” to which Ms. Patton replied, “Not once.” Indeed, even with its investments in fish and wildlife protection, BPA provides electricity at rates that are the envy of the nation.  

Here's the video:

Efforts to blame the Endangered Species Act for economic woes (or jacked-up power rates) are as old as the Act itself.  And like most every other instance of species scapegoating, HR 1719 comes no closer to reality.  Salmon restoration is an integral part of BPA’s responsibilities, and a shared goal of all Northwesterners.  Distorting costs and confusing consumers will only get in the way of reaching that goal.  For that reason alone, HR 1719 should get mothballed along with Washington’s old, failed nuclear plants. 

Gilly Lyons is the Senior Policy Analyst for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

Idaho Congressional Delegation Jumps the Gun on Grizzlies

By Derek Goldman
Field Representative
Endangered Species Coalition
The town of Porthill, Idaho lies along the Kootenai River, about 20 miles north of Bonners Ferry. Porthill is about as close you can get to Canada without actually crossing the border. It is also the home of Jeremy Hill, a man who shot a two-year old grizzly bear on his property last May. Mr. Hill claimed to have shot the bear after it and two others went after one of his pigs in his yard. Mr. Hill reported that he grabbed his gun when he saw the bears and realized that his children were outside the house playing in the yard.
The Endangered Species Act has provisions that allow an exception to its probation on lethal “take” of listed species in the case of self-defense, and the facts and testimony in the Jeremy Hill certainly make a self-defense claim seem plausible. However, on August 8, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after investigating the incident, decided to file charges against Mr. Hill. He was facing a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $50,000.
The Idaho Panhandle has long been a hotbed of radical, anti-government sentiment, and predictably, folks in the region rallied to Mr. Hill’s defense, and quickly propelled the husband and father of six into a cause-célèbre  for the anti-Endangered Species Act types (and the anti-federal government movement, generally). Also predictably, long-time ESA foes like Idaho Governor Butch Otter got into the act, using Mr. Hill’s unfortunate situation to push his agenda. Subsequently, the government agreed to drop its charges in exchange for Mr. Hill agreeing to a fine of $1,000.
Although the government dropped charges against Mr. Hill in early September, the political grandstanding escalated again last week when all four members of Idaho’s Congressional delegation, citing the Hill incident, introduced legislation to amend the Endangered Species Act to clarify that people have  right to self-defense.
Now here is where things get interesting. The ink was barely dry on the Senators’ press release (which noted that their bill would make a “drastic improvement” over current ESA law), when a savvy reporter at the Spokane Spokesman-Review looked up the Act, and discovered that the self-defense language proposed by the bill sponsors ALREADY EXISTED, ALMOST VERBATIM in current Endangered Species Act statute. Here is her analysis. Apparently some politicians were so quick to seize upon an opportunity to bash the Endangered Species Act that they forgot to actually read it first!
In fact, the Endangered Species Act is very flexible and (the few times it happens) the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service routinely gives folks who have shot a grizzly bear the benefit of the doubt on self-defense claims.  I have no idea what facts and evidence the Service uncovered in its investigation, but why – out of all the dozen or so dubious grizzly bear shootings that occur each year in the Northern Rockies – the government decided to file charges in this case is a mystery to me.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Keystone Pipeline Could Push Endangered Whooping Crane Into Extinction

If you were to choose a route through which to move toxic, highly corrosive, sludgy crude oil, would you place it on the same narrow corridor used by one of the world’s most endangered birds?  The Canadian energy company TransCanada did and the Obama administration is on the verge of approving that absurd proposal.

Keystone XL Proposed Route
If approved by the administration, the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline will move a half million+ barrels daily of Canadian crude 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada to the Texas coast as soon as 2013.  TransCanada would like the world to believe that their pipeline is relatively safe, claiming just one predicted spill in the first 7 years. Yet, TransCanada’s existing Keystone Pipeline has experienced 12 spills – in just 12 months of operation. 
Whooping Crane Migration Route

Despite assurances by pipeline operators, spills continue.  The July spill of a much smaller pipeline under the Yellowstone River in Montana released 1,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone. The Keystone XL would be 3 times as large, carrying 600,000 of oil per day.  There have been five major pipeline spills in the United States in the last 24 months.  Adding nearly 2,000 miles of high-pressure pipeline carrying one of the most corrosive and dirty fuels known to man is a disaster in the making.

That doesn’t sound safe, particularly not for the one of the most highly endangered birds in the world—the Whooping crane. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) calls the Whooping crane one of the most famous symbols of America’s dedication to saving its wild national heritage.  Unfortunately for the crane, however, it uses the same 1,700-mile route as the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

image credit USFWS
Whooping cranes follow the proposed path of the pipeline annually each spring, as they migrate from Texas to their breeding grounds in Canada. Along the way, they depend on the rivers, marshes, wetlands and streams for stopover and feeding habitat. Since the pipeline’s proposed route crosses many of these habitats—including the Platte River in Nebraska, one of the most important feeding and resting locations—miles of these critical stopping points would be at risk of being fouled with sludgy, toxic tar-sands oil every day of the year.

Scientists are deeply concerned about the potential harm to Whooping Cranes.  The Society for Conservation Biology—the world’s largest international conservation science society—has recently released a press release sounding the alarm about the cranes.  For instance, a recent report found that a major spill on the Platte River could result in 5.9 million gallons of toxic, corrosive tar-sands oil being dumped into the Platte.  A worst-case scenario per their research would result in nearly 8 million gallons of oil being spilled.   A catastrophe of this magnitude would almost certainly decimate wildlife and potentially all that remains of this population of whooping cranes—just 74 breeding pairs. 

Deepwater Horizon mercilessly demonstrated the near impossible task of cleaning oil from a marsh or wetland.  And this oil—tar-sands oil—is much more corrosive, toxic and difficult to clean up. Once coated with sticky oil, the birds would be unable to insulate and regulate their temperatures and could slowly die from hypothermia or acute toxicity. Imagine the brown pelicans in the Gulf but with much thicker oil (and much more endangered birds).

In addition to the grave risk of catastrophic spill, whooping cranes would be put at still further risk by the installation of aerial power lines that would be constructed to power pumping stations on the proposed pipeline route.  Collisions with power lines are already the largest known cause of death for migrating Whooping cranes. This proposal would result in hundreds more miles of aerial lines throughout the birds’ migrating path, compounding the likelihood of disaster.  These aerial lines won’t be built without the pipeline and the pipeline won’t be built without them. 

This pipeline simply cannot be built without putting the whooping crane and as many as 10 other endangered species at great and unnecessary peril.  Despite that, the State department recently published its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) asserting that there would be no significant impacts along the proposed corridor.  Alarmingly, the State Department declined to include any analysis from the soon to be completed USFWS biological opinion regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline. In doing so, the State Department has completely ignored the impacts of the proposed pipeline on the highly endangered Whooping crane and in so doing, ignored the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

The Obama administration could announce its decision whether to block this remarkably flawed proposal at any time. The White House needs to hear from you. Please go to to tell the President to block the Keystone XL Pipeline.