Thursday, August 06, 2009

Wall gov’t denying access to Western Energy Corridor briefing notes; U.S. groups file legal challenge to Bush-era West-wide Energy Corridor plan

Western Governors’ Association Annual Meeting,
Park City, Utah, June 14-16, 2009

At a “sidebar meeting” during the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) annual meeting in Park City, Utah, in June, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall “announced their intent to pursue establishment of a Western Energy Corridor Coalition.”

The coalition, “comprising bi-national regional political leadership,” will help address “regional energy challenges.” [The Western Energy Corridor: An Overview of Strategic Resources and Trends Critical to North American Energy Security and Prosperity, Idaho National Laboratory, June 18, 2009]

According to the article Western energy corridor touted (Calgary Herald, June 15, 2009) the plan, “spearheaded” by Wall and Schweitzer, “could open new markets to the three Prairie provinces, which are all major energy producers in both renewables and fossil fuels.”

Joining Wall at the conference were Alberta’s Ed Stelmach and Manitoba’s Gary Doer. The three met on June 14 “with state political leaders to explore the potential for a broader energy relationship.”

Schweitzer, chairman of the WGA, said the oilsands are critically important to the U. S.’s energy security and a major component for a powerhouse energy corridor.

“The most important energy corridor on the planet is no longer the Persian Gulf. It runs from the oilsands, Fort Mc-Murray to Port Arthur, Texas,” Schweitzer said. “A large part of energy independence is going to be dependent upon developing the oilsands.”

In a June 15 provincial government news release, Wall confirmed that governors and premiers requested that he and Gov. Schweitzer continue developing an action plan for a western energy corridor, subject to a fall go-forward approval.

The action plan will consider transmission issues, co-ordination of research, development and deployment of cleaner energy technology and advocacy.

“There is a great swath of renewable and non-renewable resources in the western part of North America,” Wall said. “We’re all going to be investing in research into the safe and sustainable development of these resources. My point is – let’s be working together on this thing.”

Completely absent from the discussion is the potential cost to taxpayers of implementing any energy corridor initiatives.

On June 11, in a news release issued just prior to the WGA meetings, Wall said, “A key goal for me at this meeting is launching the Western Energy Initiative – something I’ve been working on with Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana. The plan is to bring together the major energy players in the Canadian and American mid-west.”

This was news to the people of Saskatchewan who had no idea their premier was working on such a plan. In fact, the June 11 news release was the first time it was mentioned.

On May 7, Schweitzer joined Wall at the legislature for signing ceremony of a memorandum of understanding for a joint development of a carbon capture and storage demonstration project. The estimated total cost of the project in Canadian dollars is $270 million.

Although the Western Energy Corridor was not specifically mentioned, the government news release said the project would “help address national policy priorities in both countries including the development of near zero, sustainable energy technologies; continental energy security and economic stimulus to support the North American economy.” As Schweitzer already pointed out U.S. energy security is a big reason for the corridor plan.

In March, Schweitzer invited Wall to attend the Chairman’s Retreat and Spring Policy Conference of the Democratic Governors Association from March 27 to 29 in Big Sky, Montana.

In addition to a carbon capture and storage project, Wall said in a March 25 news release “he will also be discussing… Saskatchewan’s future plans for uranium value-added production and nuclear research at the Governor’s meeting.”

There was no mention of the Western Energy Corridor, but it’s interesting to note that Wall’s comments on the province’s nuclear plans came a week before the Uranium Development Partnership report was released and two months before the Future of Uranium in Saskatchewan public consultations began.

Wall and his Saskatchewan Party government have repeatedly told the public that no decisions have been made on nuclear power, so what “plans” did the premier disclose at the meeting?

Attempts to obtain additional information on the Western Energy Corridor are being thwarted by the provincial government.

On June 19, a request was made to the Ministry of Energy and Resources under the province’s freedom of information legislation for copies of any briefing notes on the subject since January 1, 2009.

On July 22, the ministry disclosed one, undated, two-page briefing note. A ministry official later advised that access to four records totaling approximately 11-pages was being withheld from release in their entirety. It seems the Wall government is willing to commit the province to the energy corridor plan but won’t let the public see all the details.

The lone briefing note was prepared in advance of a meeting between Premier Wall and Gov. Schweitzer that was scheduled for January 28 in Helena, Montana. The purpose of the meeting was “to discuss the Western Energy Corridor Initiative (WECI), together with other matters.”

The document says that the WECI “is an outgrowth of studies funded by the United States (U.S.) Department of Energy (DOE) for a strategic plan to develop U.S. unconventional fuel resources (e.g. oil shale resources, coal to liquid fuels, oil sands, heavy oil, carbon dioxide enhanced oil recovery) pursuant to a requirement set out in Section 369(i)(1)(A) of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.”

Idaho National Laboratory (INL), the DOE’s lead nuclear energy research and development facility, “has been the lead national energy laboratory in developing WECI.”

The note states: “The broad geographic reach of WECI includes the U.S. states immediately east of the Rocky Mountains, and proposes to include Alberta and Saskatchewan as international partners (including provincial agencies and research institutions) to facilitate information sharing on unconventional resource development.”

The provincial government did not issue a press release for Wall’s trip to Montana in January. It was, however, reported by the media but the WECI was not mentioned. The public was kept in the dark. It remains unclear exactly how long the premier has been working on the energy corridor initiative.

On March 17, 2009, the Saskatchewan Party government and the INL signed an MOU, which, according to an INL news release, “formalizes processes for INL and Saskatchewan to agree on energy research and demonstration efforts in uranium, nuclear energy, heavy oil, oil shale and oil sands. The agreement also provides for potential collaboration on carbon dioxide capture and storage projects.”

The INL considers the Saskatchewan MOU as the continued expansion of its “collaborations in the Western Energy Corridor,” noting that the “lab has signed several such cooperative agreements during the last year.” These include one in British Columbia and another in Alberta. This information wasn’t included in the provincial government’s news release.

The INL and the Wall government worked together recently at the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER) 19th Annual Summit held July 12-16 in Boise, Idaho.

INL energy business lead Michael Hagood and Crown Investments Corporation vice-president and longtime Saskatchewan Party insider Iain Harry participated in a panel discussion on the Western Energy Corridor as part of the PNWER Energy II working group meeting on July 14.

Established in 1991, PNWER is a public/private partnership made up of legislators, governments and businesses from across the U.S. and Canadian northwest with the aim of pursuing similar goals in the areas of regional co-operation and economic growth. The organization acts as a lobby group to leverage regional influence in Ottawa and Washington D.C.

Currently, PNWER consists of five U.S. states and five Canadian provinces or territories (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon).

Saskatchewan joined PNWER during the organization’s 18th Annual Summit in Vancouver, July 20-24, 2008. The newest member, the Northwest Territories, was accepted into the fold at last month’s summit in Boise.

It should come as no surprise to learn that PNWER is a big booster of a similar U.S. government plan that is currently mired in controversy – one that PNWER hoped to see Saskatchewan dragged into.

In a November 28, 2005, letter to the DOE, PNWER executive director Matt Morrison presented the organization’s comments on the Bush-administration’s development of a West-wide Energy Corridor Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) pursuant to Federal Register Doc. S05-19375 (“Notice of Intent”) and Section 368 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, enacted August 8, 2005.

“We enthusiastically support efforts to designate energy corridors on federal lands for oil, gas, and hydrogen pipelines and electricity transmission and distribution facilities,” Morrison wrote.

Morrison cited the INL’s work on Generation IV nuclear power systems and British Columbia’s series of hydrogen and fuel cell demonstration projects in and around Victoria, Vancouver and Whistler as “cutting-edge projects” that “deserve specific mention in any efforts to identify energy corridors on federal lands.”

PNWER encouraged the U.S. government to, “Actively reach out to relevant ministries, government agencies and the private sector in the Western Canadian Provinces of Alberta, British Columbia (and Saskatchewan).”

“The Pacific Northwest is heavily dependent on Western Canada for natural gas and our electrical grid is interdependent,” Morrison said.

“Furthermore, the Oil Sands have the potential to produce, through cogeneration, an estimated four to six thousand megawatts of electricity, with essentially no fuel cost, as thermal energy is already being used to make steam to liberate the oil from the oil sands. These resources could provide long-term contracts to industrial customers in the Pacific Northwest, if the necessary transmission corridors can be sited.”

“Reaching out to public and private Canadian partners will be essential to the successful development of the draft PEIS,” Morrison said.

While the energy corridor plans have gone largely unnoticed in Saskatchewan, it is very much on the radar south of the border.

On July 9, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a Colorado county and a coalition of conservation groups – including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society – have filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco alleging that agencies “that mapped the 6,000 miles of energy-corridor rights of way failed to analyze renewable-source locations and numerous federal and local land-use plans.”

According to the article Groups sue to stop Bush plan for Western energy corridors (Salt Lake Tribune, July 9, 2009) the “lawsuit names Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and the heads of three federal land-management agencies.

“The coalition filed the lawsuit essentially to get the Obama administration’s attention, said Liz Thomas, a SUWA attorney in Moab, where a map shows a corridor three to six miles wide running past the entrances to Arches National Park and continuing through the narrow Moab Canyon to the south.

“While the Bureau of Land Management changed the corridor plan to avoid some wilderness areas, Utah’s maps were unchanged, Thomas said.

“Fourteen of the corridors are in Utah, and would be anywhere from two-thirds of a mile to four miles wide. Each corridor could hold as many as nine electric transmission lines, 35 petroleum and 29 natural-gas pipelines.”

The following day a Salt Lake Tribune editorial said the Bush plan “might have been a good idea 50 years ago, but not today” and “should be scrapped.”

“The Western states targeted by the corridor plan -- Utah, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming -- comprise an area of the planet among the most vulnerable to rising temperatures brought on by the burning of carbon fuels. On the other hand, the same states can produce more solar, wind and geothermal energy than most others,” the editorial states.

“There is a pressing need for new and efficient distribution systems to take those resources to Americans nationwide. The Bush corridor plan clearly isn’t it. The governors’ Western Renewable Energy Zone Initiative and the Utah Renewable Energy Zone Task Force offer forward-thinking alternatives.

“Under a pair of new Utah laws, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development will identify zones with the greatest potential for commercial-scale solar, wind and geothermal power plants. A new state agency will help communities and energy developers finance electrical transmission lines to connect to the main grid.

“The WGA has already taken steps to launch a similar regional plan to bring renewable energy online and distribute it. Both the Utah and WGA projects consider effects on the environment and disqualify areas where development would harm scenic and recreational areas, wildlife and watersheds. The Bush corridors, by contrast, could run near or inside national parks and roadless and wilderness study areas.” [Scrap corridor plan (Salt Lake Tribune, July 10, 2009)]

People are hoping for better things under the Obama administration but if Energy Secretary Chu’s comments in the Edmonton Journal and Salt Lake Tribune following his address to state leaders and premiers at the WGA meeting on July 15 are any indication, it could mean more of the same old, same old.

According to the Edmonton Journal, Chu said there’s “a lot of concern” about the Alberta oilsands, saying it takes far more energy to develop compared to conventional sources, and that there’s also environmental issues to deal with, but the oilsands nonetheless remain a key part of the U.S. energy mix. [Oilsands’ carbon footprint leaves Obama team uneasy (Edmonton Journal, June 16, 2009)]

Chu said that nuclear power “has to be part of the mix,” then made the bogus claim that it’s “clean” energy. He also said the problems of waste, safety and possible proliferation of weapons-grade material, considered by anti-nuclear activists as insurmountable, can be solved. [Energy secretary sees nuclear power in America’s future (Salt Lake Tribune, June 16, 2009)]

No doubt this was music to Premier Brad Wall’s ears.

Unfortunately, Wall hasn’t yet told Saskatchewan residents what kind of environmental impact the Western Energy Corridor will have on the province. So far his government is withholding more information than its releasing.

The elephant in the room is, of course, the energy industry which has donated nearly $1.2 million to the Saskatchewan Party since 1998 – with the majority of that money coming from Alberta-based oil and gas companies and industry lobby groups. It’s obvious who’s pulling the strings.


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