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U.S. moves closer to opening Arctic refuge for oil leasing

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The Trump administration moved closer on Thursday to opening thousands of kilometres within Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing, issuing a draft report that concluded the polar bears, caribou and other wildlife could safely share their untouched wilderness with oil and gas producers.

The report released by the Bureau of Land Management studied the environmental impact of opening between two-thirds and all of 1.65 million acres of coastal plain within the remote refuge for oil and gas leasing.

Release of Thursday’s legally required environmental impact statement marks one of the last major actions in office by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, an ardent supporter of the oil and gas industry who leaves office Jan. 2 amid ethics investigations.

In a statement, Zinke called the step toward opening Alaska’s North Slope for oil and gas development a move toward an “energy-dominant America.”

A strong leasing program within the wilderness area “helps us realize our tremendous energy potential without harming our environment or way of life,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in another statement.

The administration’s environmental review acknowledged that opening the coastal plains within the nation’s largest wildlife refuge would impact Alaska Native hunters, as well as caribou herds and other arctic animals and migratory birds that depend upon the refuge.

In a statement, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (seen here with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski) called the step toward opening Alaska’s North Slope for oil and gas development a move toward an ‘energy-dominant America.’ (The Associated Press/Susan Walsh)

The report concluded, however, that the lease sales could be carried out “while balancing biological and ecological concerns.”

President Donald Trump had insisted Congress include a provision mandating the lease sales within the wildlife refuge in recent tax legislation. Trump said a friend had told him that every Republican president since Ronald Reagan had tried and failed to open the wildlife refuge for oil and gas.

President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995. Democrats defeated a similar Republican proposal a decade later.

‘Rushed and reckless’

Environmental groups accuse the administration of hurrying the process through, barring adequate review of the risks of opening one of the United States’ wildest remaining areas to oil and gas prospecting and drilling.

Official publication of Thursday’s environmental impact statement opens a period of public review, which ends in February.

“The process laid out in the plan is rushed and reckless, defying good science and meaningful dialogue with stakeholders,” said Jamie Williams, head of The Wilderness Society non-profit, said in a statement.

“Some places should remain untouched for future generations,” Williams said.

“This is a land grab, pure and simple, and the individuals responsible care little about impacts to wildlife or the damage they would be inflicting on Alaska Native people,” executive director Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League said.

Opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge protest in Anchorage, Alaska, in May 2017. (Mark Thiessen/The Associated Press)

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans said the oil and gas leases would help pay for the tax cuts approved by Congress and signed by Trump in December.

Environmental groups and other critics call hopes of any big payoff unfounded, citing falling oil prices globally and the high costs of operating in the Arctic’s difficult terrain.

The administration plan calls for at least two major lease sales over the next decade of at least 1,618 square
kilometres each in the refuge’s coastal plain.

The legislation says surface development would be limited to 7.77 square kilometres.

However, the Bureau of Land Management in its environmental review said it interpreted that limit as applying only “at any given time,” suggesting oil and gas drilling sites could use more than 809 hectares over time.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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DFO tries to allay fishermen’s fears that protected area would impact livelihood

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The two-lane highway along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore is dotted with dozens of signs declaring “No Marine Protected Area Here!”

It’s a sign, literally, of organized opposition to a proposed 2,000-square-kilometre marine protected area.

The Eastern Shore Islands area is the first coastal candidate in Canada with an active inshore commercial fishery, albeit a small one with just 150 lobster fishermen. Still, they are a mainstay of the local economy and leading the opposition.

The fishermen fear a marine protected area, or MPA, would automatically lead to so-called no-take zones, barring industrial activities like harvesting.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans is moving to put those fears at rest.

“We will not be making a recommendation for there to be a zone of high protection within the MPA,” said Wendy Williams, director of DFO Maritimes Oceans Management.

A “No Marine Protected Area Here!” sign is seen along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. (Robert Short/CBC)

Last week, the department presented the results of a draft risk assessment to an advisory committee established to recommend what should or should not be allowed inside Eastern Shore Islands.

The committee was created after the department declared the unspoiled archipelago of hundreds of islands an area of interest. It is the first step on the road to designation as a marine protected area under the federal Oceans Act.

The risk assessment concluded the lobster fishery would not harm the kelp beds, eel grass and cod nursery the federal government wants to protect.

“The predominant activity that takes place there is the lobster fishery. It’s a low-impact fishery. It only operates two months a year, so we feel it’s not necessary to have a no-take,” Williams said in an interview.

“We talked to the advisory committee about that and what we heard and unanimously around the table is that they felt the same way. So in our design going forward we will not be incorporating a no-take zone.”

Fishermen seek assurances

But fisherman Peter Connors is not declaring victory.

“You have to remember this is deathbed conversion,” he said.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area.

He does not trust DFO and is seeking some sort of legally binding commitment from federal Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson honouring Williams’s promise.

As president of the Eastern Shore Fishermen’s Protective Association, Peter Connors represents the 150 active lobster fishermen in the area. (Robert Short/CBC)

“I want to know the mechanism that he’s going to use and just how he intends to secure that for future generations,” said Connors. “I don’t want a trust me proposition and I don’t want a temporary reprieve … just because they are facing a lot of opposition now.”

Connors acknowledged a marine protected area on the Eastern Shore could help “Canada’s brand” from a marketing perspective. The country has committed to protecting 10 per cent of its ocean by 2020.

‘Give and take’

Environmentalists have watched in frustration as opposition to Eastern Shore Islands galvanized over the prospect of no-take zones.

Susanna Fuller, senior projects manager for conservation organization Oceans North, urged DFO to eliminate no-take zones from the discussion last year.

“Since it has been such an issue of contention, we are hoping that this gives the community and the fishermen a sense that they are being heard,” said Fuller.

“For this process to go forward there needs to be some give and take.”

While DFO has decided to allow unrestricted lobster fishing inside Eastern Shore Islands, Williams said no precedent has been set.

“Every MPA is different. If people have their expectations raised in any particular way because of what we’re looking at now for this MPA, they really shouldn’t. Everything is unique and we need to look at it that way,” she said.

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