New Jersey Environmental Lobby Newsletter - Summer 2015



New Jersey Environmental Lobby Newsletter

$7 Billion Later, Shell Oil Changes Its Mind -
Royal Dutch Shell’s decision to cancel its drilling in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea stunned many, considering the years of effort and the estimated $7 Billion in investment that it cost the company.
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The XL Keystone Pipeline - President Obama Listened -
On the heels of the Arctic drilling decisions, and after 7 years of studies, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Keystone XL Pipeline (XL) was not in the national security interest of the United States.
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Water Protection Rules Are Interconnected And Contentious -
During the summer, the attention of clean water advocates was focused on water protection rules proposed by the NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP).
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Advocates Continue to Work to Curb Plastic Pollution -
When something is entrenched in our culture for decades, like disposable plastics, it takes time to convince the public and legislators of contradicting facts. A group of Princeton activists...
Read More ...
$7 Billion Later, Shell Oil Changes Its Mind -
Royal Dutch Shell’s decision to cancel its drilling in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea stunned many, considering the years of effort and the estimated $7 Billion in investment that it cost the company. On September 28, just weeks after its drilling plans received final approval by the U.S. government, Shell announced that the volume of oil found during exploratory drilling would not justify additional investment “for the foreseeable future.” Three weeks later, the U. S. Department of the Interior cancelled two upcoming lease sales and announced that it would not extend leases currently held by Shell and the Norwegian company Statoil.

Shell’s drilling plans garnered news coverage in May 2015 when kayaking protesters in Seattle tried to block the arrival of a drilling platform with the deceptively noble name “Polar Pioneer.” The rig was to stop for servicing at the Port of Seattle on its way to the drilling site in Alaska. The transport ship carrying the Pioneer made its way into the destination terminal and out again, reaching Alaskan waters for a disappointing drilling season.

Environmentalists celebrated and activists who staged daring standoffs with the floating behemoth claimed victory. Hedged statements by both Shell and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior have to be heard with caution, however. Shell cited business economics and the “challenging and unpredictable federal regulatory environment in offshore Alaska.” We can hope that the regulatory environment was influenced by the will of the American people, but would a different administration enforce environmental rules less vigorously?

In a press release, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell cited “current market conditions and low industry interest” as reasons for cancelling sales that could have taken place under a five year plan ending in 2017. The release was no promise of finality, and did not even mention environmental risks.

The saga of Arctic drilling started long before 2015. Oil was extracted from Alaska’s North Slope starting in 1968. Norway, Canada, and Russia have engaged in exploration or extraction over the years, and Royal Dutch Shell is already operating in the Arctic. While there have been objections to disturbance of habitat due to drilling, previous operational problems and the knowns and UNKNOWNS of drilling in the Arctic intensified the opposition to opening new U.S. Arctic territory. Everything from how cleanup dispersants might or might not work in Arctic temperatures to the inability of ice-breaking ships to get to a site brought the risks of Arctic Ocean drilling into sharp relief.

In October 2014, an oil-laden Russian barge broke free from its tow, drifting from Canadian to U.S. and back to Russian waters. Icebreakers that normally would have responded were already back in their southerly home ports. This was a sobering incident.

There were portends of Shell’s decision. Shell cancelled drilling that was to begin in the summer of 2014. At the time, a new CEO said that the decision might be permanent. Shell already had spent over $5 billion and the company was clearly concerned about the cost/reward ratio. Since then, the price of oil has decreased by more than 50%, reducing the potential “rewards” even more.

Shell suffered several mishaps during 2012, some of them related to the stormy Arctic seas (which aren’t expected to change anytime soon!). Shell’s complaints about the “challenging and unpredictable” regulatory environment also ring hollow, to say the least. The vessels involved in the 2012 incidents were the property of Shell’s drilling contractor Noble Drilling LLC, which pleaded guilty to FELONY violations. These included knowingly discharging water and oil from its Noble Discoverer directly into the sea without routing it through an oil/water separator. The ship’s system was unable to keep up with the volume of bilge and wastewater that was entering the vessel. The crew devised supplementary pump out that bypassed the separator, knowing that this was against U.S. and Maritime law. Noble then falsified records. Noble paid over $12 million in fines, but the pollution had already occurred. Shell also was unhappy with the Obama administration’s finding that protection of walruses and polar bears precluded operating two rigs simultaneously. All the while, Shell insisted that it was conducting operations so as to protect the Arctic’s natural resources.

The CEO of the French Oil company Total declared drilling in the Arctic “too risky,” but Shell and others are persisting. With geologic estimates of 90 billion barrels of oil in 19 different Arctic basins, no wonder. Scientists estimate that the Arctic region holds 13% of the world’s oil reserves; as other less hostile environments like the Gulf and Mexico and the Arabian Peninsula are depleted, the Arctic is alluring. While Shell announced that the well that is the subject of the recent controversy will be permanently capped, that is just one spot in a huge area and a very large ocean. Shell is still operating in other areas of the Arctic. Unattributed statements are that Shell’s decision reflects only the results of this one well and that it has not given up on Arctic operations. Norway’s Statoil postponed a project in 2015 and Russia has abandoned at least one gas mining project, but their other operations are continuing. Should the prices of oil and gas rise, or drilling technology advance, projects may well be resurrected.

It is particularly disturbing that segments of the Alaskan population are angry at the government, dismissive of opponents, and hopeful that exploration will start again. Mead Treadwell, a former Alaska lieutenant governor and now head of an investment fund commented, “Oil was found at Prudhoe Bay after several firms gave up. It should be an objective of the US to get more holes drilled in what could be our nation’s biggest prospect.” Alaska’s Senators are proponents of the oil and gas industry, and some Native Alaskan groups are on the industry side of the debate. The President of the Alaska Slope Regional Corporation, a consortium of native companies that invested in Shell’s venture, expressed deep disappointment and gave some very strange logic for investing in fossil fuels: the group feared that climate change would make it difficult to sustain their traditional whaling and fishing!

The XL Keystone Pipeline - President Obama Listened -
On the heels of the Arctic drilling decisions, and after 7 years of studies, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Keystone XL Pipeline (XL) was not in the national security interest of the United States. As a trans-border project, XL required the approval of the State Department. President Obama confirmed the rejection, effectively killing it. Fossil fuel proponents bitterly criticized the decision and pipeline opponents celebrated.

The opponents were a collection of groups that do not always agree—conservationists, farmers, ranchers, Native American tribes, property and states’ rights advocates—and had different reasons, but cited one unifying thing—RISK, whether to an underground aquifer, wildlife, the future of family farms and ranches, the integrity of treaties, or the global climate.

Canadian reaction was mixed. While national Premier Justin Trudeau expressed disappointment, the consensus was that the Liberal Party politician now does not have to reconcile the XL with his pledge to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly before the U.S. rejection of the pipeline, there were stunning election results in conservative Alberta when a liberal New Democrat provincial premier was elected. She opposed the pipeline, though for economic and natural resource reasons having to do with her province rather than global climate or the U.S. environment. Whatever the reason, it negated U. S. politicians’ predictions of damage to U.S.-Canadian relations and eliminated another excuse for accommodating the fossil fuel industry.

While we celebrate, history shows that special interests will not give up and go away. The Federal lease sale program is carried out in five-year blocks and the segment that was cancelled would have ended in 2017. There is no guarantee that a sales program will not be instituted after that. Arctic oil is still cited as a resource that needs to be exploited. If the price of crude oil recovers, exploration will surely resume. Neither is the XL pipeline a closed subject. The project’s sponsor, TransCanada, responded that it would “review all of its options,” including filing a new permit application. Earlier, the company asked the State Department to halt its review until the completion of a review by the State of Nebraska. These tactics would push the issue past the next Presidential election. To ensure that these projects are not resurrected, the public must continue to oppose increased use of fossil fuels and demand public policies that facilitate renewal energy.

Water Protection Rules Are Interconnected And Contentious -
During the summer, the attention of clean water advocates was focused on water protection rules proposed by the NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Under the Federal Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may authorize states to stand in the shoes of the Federal government and adopt regulations to protect their own water resources. To do so, states must establish standards, implement rules, and enforce compliance. Much of this regulation focuses on pollutant discharges, as from sewer and industrial plants, and on protecting waters at their source. There are overarching Federal regulations, and one of these is that there can be no “backsliding” from established standards or existing water quality.

New Jersey’s topography, water resources, and soils are amazingly varied for a small state. Drinking water is pulled from both surface and ground water sources. Consequently, an array of laws, implementing regulations, and associated permits has been adopted to protect the quality of our water. Overlaid on this are protections established for unique regions like the Highlands, the Meadowlands, and the Pinelands.

Changes to three critical rule sets were proposed by DEP—Stormwater Management, Coastal Zone Management, and Flood Hazard. Unfortunately, rulemaking is subject to politics and the latest proposals clearly favor development over protection.

Organizations with specialized missions and scientific expertise in water resources—the NJ Highlands Coalition (NJHC), Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association (SBMWA), the NJ Conservation Foundation, and the NY/NJ Baykeeper—analyzed the proposed changes and commented to DEP as part of the public comment process. NJEL joined in the comments submitted by SBMWA. Together, the “expert” groups represented almost 100 organizations.

The slate of existing water protection rules is voluminous and highly technical. There may be overlap, depending upon the location of a body of water and the development characteristics of its surroundings. DEP’s notices of rule proposals cited the need for flexibility and permit streamlining. These are terms used throughout the years of the Christie administration. In reference to the environment, they generally mean rolling back protections in general or allowing waivers for “hardship.” DEP’s revisions seem to equate “hardship” with inconvenience. Contradictory and confusing rules should be overhauled, but not by simply loosening standards. In resolving contradictions and overlap, DEP ignored some obvious measures that could improve the rules without threatening water quality. DEP instead revised conflicting rules to the lowest common denominator. This in itself is a violation of EPA’s “backsliding” rule.

It is impossible to cover the details of the water resource rules here, or all of the science-based objections to them, but there are some notable examples of proposals that clean water experts are protesting. One is the treatment of “buffers,” those areas bordering streams that are kept natural. Buffers stabilize stream banks, mitigate flood risk, and protect water quality. Buffer soils trap pollutants and excess nutrients before they reach the body of water. Industrial chemicals and pesticides are not the only substances that degrade water quality. Nitrogen, a beneficial nutrient for plants, can be “too much of a good thing.” The runoff from agricultural and residential fertilizers containing nitrogen is responsible for much of the poor water quality of our streams, lakes, and bays. Even the organic matter that we now strive to use on fields and gardens (instead of man-made compounds) can be problematic. As development encroaches on bodies of water, runoff from this and other human activity increases.

Both the Stormwater Rules and the Flood Hazard Rules apply to buffers, although they may apply in different ways and for different reasons. In areas subject to the Flood Hazard Area (FHA) Control Rules buffers of 300 feet are required. The current Stormwater Control Rules refine certain (but not all) buffer areas further. The rules establish “Special Water Resource Protection Areas (SWRPA),” which are buffers around bodies of water that are considered critical because, among other things, they constitute the sources of our water supplies.* Flood Hazard Areas are not necessarily SWRPAs. The rules for Flood Hazard Areas allow for development disturbance of the natural state of buffers under certain circumstances, but the Stormwater Rules for SWRPAs are stricter in order to protect water from pollution. The rules for SWRPAs divide the buffer area into an inner ring that may not be developed at all and an outer ring that may be developed “only if the area was previously disturbed or developed and an applicant can demonstrate that the functional value and overall condition” of the area. (quoted from comments by Michael L. Pisauro for the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association).

Now, for “standardization,” DEP is proposing to eliminate the SWRPAs. Similar to DEP’s reversal of its insistence that the Menantico Wildlife Management Area was vital for wildlife habitat, until it wanted to allow its sale for development, DEP is contradicting its past justification for SWRPAs. In establishing the rules and defending them against challenges, DEP called SWRPAs “the best and most reliable means to prevent the degradation of surface water quality from nonpoint source pollution and protect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the State’s surface waters.” When a riparian area is an SWRPA and also in a flood hazard zone, it makes no sense to defer to the lowest level of protection if preventing water degradation is the goal.

There are numerous other provisions in the water protection rules that DEP proposes to revise. They involve biology, hydrology, and building concepts that may seem complicated to the general public. Some are not so hard to understand. They include supposed solutions to erosion that instead of requiring tools like green infrastructure for decreasing runoff, or better siting of road projects, take the path of least resistance. One “solution” for protecting certain unique soils would allow piping of excess stormwater, with all of its pollutants, directly into streams rather than maintaining effective buffers.

In proposing to increase the soil disturbance that is allowed in a riparian zone, DEP stated “in some cases the riparian zone disturbance allowed for certain projects is of insufficient area to appropriately accommodate responsible development.” It is hard to reconcile “responsible development” with degrading the riparian zones that protect water quality. As Mike Pisauro pointed out In his comments to DEP, the “limited exceptions allowed under the existing regulations have not improved water quality or reduced flooding so expanding those exceptions could only serve to exacerbate the problem.”

Senators Smith and Lesniak to the Rescue -
In October, Senators Lesniak and Smith introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 180 (SCR180), stating that the revisions to the rules are inconsistent with Legislative intent. DEP rules implement laws that were intended to improve water quality and protect life and property. SCR180 was passed by the Senate on October 26. After the Assembly passes a similar resolution, the DEP Commissioner will have 30 days to amend or withdraw the rules. If he does not, the Legislature may invalidate them by passing a second concurrent resolution. YOU can help in this endeavor. Lobbyists and clean water organizations have worked to convince legislators, but volumes of messages get Legislators’ attention! Call, email, or write to your Assembly representative immediately and request that he or she vote for an Assembly resolution similar to SCR180.

Advocates Continue to Work to Curb Plastic Pollution -
When something is entrenched in our culture for decades, like disposable plastics, it takes time to convince the public and legislators of contradicting facts. A group of Princeton activists, including NJEL Board member Bainy Suri and Executive Director Noemi de la Puente, have persisted in raising awareness in Princeton, Mercer County, and the State. In 2014, a bill to reduce the use of single use plastic bags advanced farther in the Legislature than any previous proposals but was not brought to a vote. Another was introduced and awaits review by the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee.

The latest development is that on November 23 Bainy and others will address the Princeton Town Council about moving forward with an ordinance that would impose a fee of a few cents on each disposable bag provided by a merchant. The purpose of the proposed ordinance is to reduce the costs of littered streams, clogged sewers, and solid waste removal. Princeton’s solicitors reviewed the draft ordinance in June 2015 and determined that under the NJ constitution, controlling litter and preventing water pollution “fall within a municipality’s general police powers.” Four years ago, the Councils of Princeton Borough and Township passed resolutions urging residents and merchants to voluntarily replace throw-away bags with reusable, recycled, and recyclable bags. While a Mercer County non-binding referendum to place a five cent fee on plastic bags was rejected in November 2014, a majority of Princeton voters approved it. Those who care about Princeton’s environment believe that it is time for the consensus opinion to be adopted as law. Princeton would be the first municipality in New Jersey to follow the examples of California, Hawaii, San Padre Island TX, and many countries in Europe and Asia.

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The Trustees of NJEL and the Environmental Education Fund extend their sympathies for two sad events: to Executive Director Noemi de la Puente upon the sudden death of her mother, Marta del Campillo de la Puente and to Environmental Education Fund President Lindsey Kayman upon the death of her father Bernard Kayman. We did not have the opportunity to know them, but obviously they instilled principles of environmental stewardship and unselfishness in their daughters.

REMEMBER!

The New Jersey Environmental Lobby is your voice in Trenton. We are an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on the preservation and protection of a healthy environment for all our citizens. We need your support! JOIN NJEL and help us change the laws!

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