Nicaragua releases and approves Nicaragua Canal environmental assessment

Image: ERM

Image: ERM

It took a while, but the government of Nicaragua finally released the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) for the proposed Nicaragua Canal megaproject.  It can be downloaded here.  The ESIA was handed over to the government back in early June, a few months after a group of us reviewed parts of the environmental studies at FIU in March.  It wasn't clear why the government was waiting so long to release the ESIA, though back in September the government announced that construction would be delayed in order to conduct further studies of the project.  It's not clear if those studies will still take place, as the government has approved the ESIA and allowed HKND (the company building the canal) to start construction:

Canal commission representative Manuel Coronel Kautz said the commission's decision authorizes China's HKND Company to start structural and construction design work [...] The canal, scheduled for completion in December 2019, will cut across the middle of the country and bisect Lake Nicaragua, known locally as Lake Colcibolca — the second-largest lake in Latin America and the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region. The canal will also cut through the Cerro Silva Nature Reserve.

One thing that's clear from the ESIA (developed by consulting firm ERM) is that while a net positive impact on the environment and local communities is possible, it remains an unlikely outcome under current planning scenarios:

The report says “the government would be wise to consider engaging with international development agencies such as the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank,” to avoid damage in sensitive areas like the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, the San Juan River, Lake Cocibolca and surrounding nature reserves.
“The study says that in normal situations, these areas would generally be considered untouchable due to their social and ecological fragility,” López noted.
ERM says that if further studies are not conducted and “mitigation and offset measures” are not successfully implemented, “biodiversity impacts would be significantly worse than described.”
It recommended further studies to identify seismic risks posed by construction of the canal; gauge the impact of dredging in the lake; identify the threats from the introduction of saltwater into the lake; and assess the risk of a reduction of the outflow of water from the lake to the San Juan River.
It also concludes that without the implementation by HKND and the government of the environmental and social mitigation measures recommended in the report, not even Route 4 – the one that was selected and the only one considered viable – would have the positive net impact for the environment that could justify construction of the canal.

Regulating Marijuana: Water Agencies vs. Law Enforcement

Photo: USFS Region 5

Photo: USFS Region 5

Marijuana legalization is spreading quickly across the United States.  One of the toughest challenges for state governments will be to create a regulatory infrastructure for the marijuana industry that strikes the right balance.  Enact policies that are heavy-handed and the industry will continue to show itself capable of surviving on the black market.  Fail to regulate at all and the legal marijuana market will struggle with uncertainty and negative externalities.  Colorado's nascent marijuana regulations have been relatively well-reviewed, in part because it had the luxury of starting from nothing.  But in California the marijuana industry has been entrenched for decades, while cultivation and consumption for medicinal use has been legal since 1996.  Nonetheless, the state has not prioritized regulation of the industry, nor made any meaningful attempts to innovate or adapt to changing conditions.  I've written in the past about the environmental impacts of excluding the industry from the regulatory framework (see here and here), as well as the difficulties states may have when choosing which of their many administrative agencies will take responsibility for regulation (see here).

Both of those issues are now converging in Northern California, where the state's regional water board is at odds with state and local law enforcement.  Adrian Fernandez Baumann reports on the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board's efforts to partner with marijuana farmers to regulate water resources:

The water board reps' basic pitch: Starting this summer, and going fully into effect next spring, the board would regulate cannabis cultivation on the basis of environmental impacts. Growers would be asked to invest time and money in the proper stewardship of the land and in repairing damage that had already been done. In exchange, the board offered, basically, an understanding: the government would give growers time to fix old problems and would provide a them with a framework to diagnose and repair issues. And all of it would be totally, officially, unconcerned with the legality of marijuana.

In principle the system should work, and some growers are enthusiastic.  But this program, and any others promulgated by state or local agencies, will face the same challenge: establishing sufficient (if not exclusive) control over marijuana regulation such that the actions of other agencies don't interfere.  This was a problem for a similar program that was eventually broken up by the federal government.  And considering that marijuana raids as recently as late June targeted private property owners, it may be a problem for the water board's program as well.

For law enforcement, there are strong incentives to ignore the water board's call for cooperation and to just keep raiding. Asset forfeiture laws allow police to seize large amounts of money and assets in pot busts. In 2014, Mendocino County seized $5.2 million in assets, including $3.9 million in cash.The Mendocino District Attorney's Office takes things even further with its "restitution" program, which co-opts a law intended to pay for meth lab clean-ups to extract more money from growers. Basically, the DA approaches busted growers with a deal: Give us some cash for each pound confiscated and you get no jail time. The amount is negotiable. Officially, it's $50 per plant and $500 per pound, but it often ends up in the tens of thousands of dollars. The funds then get divided up between the DA and the arresting agency, creating a revenue stream with little democratic oversight.  

There are advantages to decentralized regulation, among them the innovation and experimentation that local agencies create.  But there are drawbacks as well, and generally speaking, decentralization and fragmentation are not the same thing.  The former shifts power to local governments with local expertise, while the latter spreads overlapping mandates around between agencies and requires extensive coordination and cooperation.  The marijuana industry will implicate many state and local agencies, but to be effective and integrated, the state will need to set some ground rules for how those agencies interact.  If it does not, expect more programs working at cross-purposes.

When will the Nicaragua Canal impact study be made public?

When will the Nicaragua Canal impact study be made public?

Back in March I co-organized an independent scientific review of the draft environmental impacts assessment for the proposed Nicaragua Canal mega-project (the full assessment includes social impacts, but we didn't review those).  The project would be one of the largest infrastructure projects in history (the largest by some measures), and many are concerned about the feasibility and impacts of such a large undertaking.  As required by international standards, an Environmental and Social Impacts Assessment (ESIA) has been prepared and turned over to the Government of Nicaragua, but for reasons unexplained, the government has not publicly released the report.  

When the ESIA is released I'll have more to say on the environmental and legal aspects of the project.  Until then, Keith Schneider of Circle of Blue just published an article looking at the research and our panel's review of it, in which I am quoted calling for the release of the document.  The article can be viewed here, and is reproduced below.

Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue

On Sunday evening, May 31, executives of Environmental Resource Management, a British research consultancy, joined the principals of the HKND Group, a Hong Kong-based development group set on building a canal across Nicaragua, in a private ceremony in Managua. The event was held to formally submit a 14-volume study to Nicaraguan authorities on the environmental and social consequences of constructing a new and mammoth shipping corridor across Central America.

The following day, in a made-for-television press event, a copy of the 14-volume Environmental and Social Impacts Assessment of the proposed Nicaragua Canal was displayed on a small table for news photographers. Though the study is not available for public review, ERM and HKND executives joined government authorities in asserting the canal construction is safe and feasible, and defended the quality of the environmental assessment, which the government and HKND say is central to the case for starting excavation, perhaps before the end of the year.

“The purpose of the study is to provide an objective, current assessment based on science,” Manuel Coronel Kautz, the president of Nicaragua’s Grand Canal Authority, told reporters.

Edwin Castro, a senior Sandanista official, added that “this is the work of more than two years by ERM, with all the scientific means and serious business of ERM.”

The quality of ERM’s data, though, and the accuracy of its conclusions about the potential harms from canal construction and operation, are not nearly as airtight as Nicaraguan authorities and HKND affirm. In March, ERM invited 15 environmental scientists and project experts to Miami to spend two days reviewing four chapters of the environmental assessment. In an 11-page evaluation obtained by Circle of Blue, the panel’s members concluded this spring that ERM’s environmental study is rife with significant flaws.

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The Environmental Impacts of Marijuana Prohibition

The Environmental Impacts of Marijuana Prohibition

It's 4/20, international cannabis appreciation day.  What better time to consider the environmental impacts of marijuana prohibition?  I say prohibition, and not cultivation, because there has already been significant attention paid to the environmental impacts of cultivation.  Mostly these criticisms focus on the anarchic nature of marijuana farming culture, and the extent to which these lawless operations despoil the environment.  Withdrawing water without permits, clearing forested areas, and using fertilizers that run-off into nearby streams are among the impacts, and I'm sure there's truth to that.  But it's worth asking why that is taking place, and what role marijuana laws are playing.  This seems to be one school of thought in response to state measures to regulate marijuana farming:

The marijuana industry has long been the province of lawbreakers, and it seems unlikely that those who have been conducting their business without any legal oversight would readily adopt measures to protect the...environment from the impact of their actions.

Recent history suggests otherwise.  In 2010 Mendocino County and local growers developed a plant registration system that helped farmers and the county comply with environmental laws.  It showed promise until federal marijuana prohibition laws broke up the partnership:

Almost 100 growers participated, but the program was shut down in early 2012, after federal agents raided one of the grows and US Attorney Melinda Haag hinted that she might just take the county to court. Later that year, a federal grand jury subpoenaed the county's zip tie records. 

The environmental impacts of marijuana cultivation might be significant, but they are made worse by forcing otherwise law-abiding farmers out of the regulatory system.  While it's easy to speculate that most marijuana farmers don't have water use permits, it's more difficult to offer a solution that doesn't run afoul of state or federal prohibition laws.  In many cases when marijuana industry entrepreneurs have tried to comply with local or state laws, those efforts back-fired by making it easier for federal prosecutors to identify and prosecute them.  

All that might be coming to an end thanks to an obscure amendment and an ongoing case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  

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