Tar Sands Coming Soon, to a Pump Near You?

Jan 31, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

keystone-xl-pipeline

Could this be a scene in the US soon, bringing tar sands gas to tanks in New England?

Today the US State Department announced in its final supplemental environmental impact statement that the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would pump 830,000 barrels/day of high-carbon, dirty oil from Canada to the United States, would have a negligible impact on climate change. Seriously? Well, that’s what the document concludes. Though the State Department acknowledges that the construction and operation of the pipeline would boost the dirty tar sands sector and contribute to climate change, the scale of the impacts unfortunately is greatly downplayed.

So, what does this mean for New England? The risks to our region’s efforts to reduce climate pollution are very real. While the Keystone Pipeline would be physically located across the country and most of the tar sands-derived product it delivers would be exported, its impacts would be felt here. As detailed in NRDC’s recent report, What’s in Your Tank? Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States Need to Reject Tar Sands and Support Clean Fuels, if the Keystone XL pipeline goes forward, it is likely that some of the tar sands delivered to Gulf Coast refineries will end up being sent to the Northeast. Between Keystone and the proposed Portland-Montreal pipeline, the Northeast unfortunately is primed for high-carbon tar sands to enter our transportation fuel mix imminently. And if these projects move forward, as much as 18 percent of the region’s petroleum-based fuel supply could be derived from tar sands by 2020.

The New England states must heed this urgent wake up call – tar sands are coming, and if we do nothing the impacts will be devastating. To avoid backsliding from the important policy efforts to reduce carbon pollution reduction in place across New England, our policymakers must pursue clean fuels policies to hold the line against dirty tar sands fuel threatening our regional transportation energy mix and our clean energy future.

Vermont Gas Pipeline: A Bridge to Nowhere?

May 23, 2013 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

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Photo: DWeller88 @ flickr

It is important to build bridges, but we need to make sure they get us where we need to go.

The proposed expansion of the Vermont Gas pipeline may be more a minefield than a bridge, as one recent Vermont weekly  and one recent national energy blog reported.

The project will cut through valuable wetlands and farmland in Addison County. Future plans include crossing Lake Champlain, moving Vermont closer to gas supplies from fracking that is ongoing now in New York and Pennsylvania.

Proponents of the project, including Middlebury College and Vermont Gas advance an overly simplistic evaluation suggesting more natural gas is needed in Vermont because it is cheaper and cleaner than the oil and propane it will replace. Others suggest natural gas is a bridge to cleaner supplies that are in our future.

All bridges are not created equal. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. The proposed gas pipeline will be in place for fifty to a hundred years. In that timeframe we need to solidly break our addiction to fossil fuels – including natural gas.

So what part of the project is in place to make sure natural gas is actually a valuable bridge and not a new addiction? Nothing. And that is sad.

We can do better than throw up our hands and blindly accept expensive and environmentally damaging new pipelines at a time when we should be moving away from fossil fuels.

Here are some ideas to start moving Vermont in a cleaner direction when it comes to new pipelines:

  1. Provide a more sophisticated evaluation that answers where this pipeline is taking us in fifty years.
  2. Stop providing unqualified support. If this is a cleaner solution, make sure it lives up to its promise. Sensitive and valuable environmental resources should be off the table.
  3. Meet climate goals by dramatically increasing efficiency, prohibiting supplies from fracking and limiting the use and lifespan of any new pipeline.


If we build bridges, let’s make sure they get us to a place we want to be.

 

Tar Sands Oil Seen As Bad News All Around

Mar 18, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Vermont has a key role to play in keeping tar sands oil where it belongs — in the ground.

The increasingly imminent proposal to move tar sands oil from Canada through an existing pipeline in the Northeast Kingdom brings this issue very close to home.

At town meetings across the state earlier this month, 29 Vermont communities passed resolutions opposing the transportation and use of tar sands oil. This was a clear message that Vermonters don’t want to be complicit in the next chapter on climate destruction.

As with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama can nix any proposal to bring tar sands through Vermont. Congressional members, including Vermont’s delegation, have called on the president to give any plan to bring tar sands through New England a searching environmental review.

We are a small state, but we have already borne more than our fair share of climate-change disasters. Stopping tar sands oil in its tracks and keeping it out of Vermont moves us in the right direction on climate change and helps avoid more climate devastation.

Tar sands oil, a gritty tar-like substance extracted from the sands of Alberta, Canada, is very different and far more damaging to our climate than conventional oil. It leaves behind a big mess and literally digs us deeper into the hole of climate change.

In a recent Scientific American article, editor David Biello reports that tar sands oil emits twice the greenhouse gas per barrel as conventional oil. As we seek newer and cleaner energy sources, using oil that is twice as dirty sends us hurtling at warp speed in exactly the wrong direction.

The nation’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, says the exploitation of tar sands oil will mean “game over” for the climate. It’s not just that tar sands oil is twice as dirty — there is also a lot of it. The government of Alberta estimates that it has available proven reserves of over 170 billion barrels of tar sands oil. That makes it the third largest proven reserve in the world, enough oil to meet Canada’s current demand for four hundred years.

The tar sands oil in Alberta sits beneath an area that is roughly the size of Florida. The reserves are vast and bountiful — not what we want from a resource that is extra dirty.

Doubling down on tar sands keeps us sadly hooked on oil, hooked on climate disasters for centuries and delays efforts to move towards cleaner energy supplies.

Tar sands oil creates other problems as well. The oil is extracted in enormous open pits, leaving vast destruction in its wake. Large areas are left uninhabitable for wildlife. Migratory birds get trapped in the waste pits.

And tar sands oil is corrosive, meaning greater wear and tear on pipelines — many of which are more than 60 years old, like the one in the Northeast Kingdom.

Spills of tar sands oil are far worse and more difficult to clean up than ordinary spills. The 2010 spill of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan is already the most expensive pipeline oil spill in U.S. history, and cleanup may never be complete.

In short, tar sands oil is bad news all around.

Vermonters are not idly standing by. In addition to the town meeting resolutions, the Legislature is considering a bill that would require a review of any proposal to move tar sands oil through Vermont.

And a number of environmental groups and citizens recently filed a legal action requesting that any plans to use the existing pipeline for tar sands oil be reviewed though Vermont’s land use development law — Act 250 — to protect our land, water and air resources threatened by this dirty fuel.

The resolve of Vermonters can help keep tar sands oil in the ground and show how responsible action to tackle climate change can leave a clean legacy for our children.

This article was originally published as a Weekly Planet column in the Environment Section of the Rutland Herald/Times Argus newspapers on March 17, 2013. You can find a copy here.

Forward on Climate Rally: We’re Strong Together

Feb 28, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The National Mall was quiet when I stepped off the 350 Massachusetts bus last Sunday. As the sun rose over the Washington Monument and I was tasked with finding breakfast for eleven of my very hungry peers from Stonehill College, I could not help but feel excited and energized for the day ahead. This was a historic moment. So much is at stake in our fight against climate change.

A few weeks earlier I attended the Keystone XL rally in Portland, ME and I could not believe the crowds- over 1,000 people showed up! I wondered: How many people would show up in DC? You can imagine my excitement as the morning went on and thousands upon thousands of Americans from all across the country gathered on the National Mall. They gathered to hear from environmental leaders like Bill McKibben of 350.org, Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). They gathered to stand together, sharing a simple concern. And they gathered to share a simple message with the country: We need to act now, together, on climate change.

As these and several other speakers shared their stories with the 45,000 Americans gathered in front of them, the urgency with which we must address this complex climate change problem was evident. It’s going to take a great deal of effort, time, and some significant behavior change, but the Americans who gathered together on this frigid day are just a few of the millions of us who are ready for some serious legislative action on climate change.

Stonehill students at the Forward on Climate Rally

At times, the crowd roared. They cheered in agreement when it was noted that, “We will never be able to eat money and we will never be able to drink oil.” The emphasis was certainly on the Keystone XL pipeline and President Obama’s ability to stop this project in its tracks. While the cheering was frequent, the signs were funny, and people smiled at the young children running around, the mood was somber as the march began toward the White House.  As the Rev. Yearwood, President of the Hip Hop Caucus noted, “We’re fighting for existence.” That day, on the National Mall surrounded by thousands, the fight was alive.

As Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) President John Kassel noted in his blog post on the topic, this type of movement certainly needs strategists, lawyers, and scientists to succeed, but also the “people in the streets, in villages and barrios, on college campuses and in cornfields and in automobile assembly plants.” Due to the excellent organizing of 350 Massachusetts, the Commonwealth sent a sizable and diverse delegation of 7 full buses including 11 of my fellow students and friends from Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.

Active in a variety of different ways with sustainability and environmental issues at the College, our group of students were able to secure a grant to cover the costs of trip from our school’s “Green Fund” which awards small grants to groups of students looking to engage in environmental events and make campus a greener place! Needless to say, this was an incredible opportunity and it has energized and inspired all of us to take further action at our school to make a positive environmental difference. Whether this be our ongoing divestment campaign, our work to reduce plastic consumption of water bottles and “to-go” meal containers, or education regarding our composting options in the cafeteria, the Forward on Climate rally proved to all of us that we all share a joint responsibility to work together to fight and seriously address the threat of climate change.

Please join us in this critical fight to preserve and protect our previous environment. Join Conservation Law Foundation. If there’s one lesson learned from the rally, it’s that we must work together. Looking around the mall, you couldn’t help but agree that we’re stronger when we do.

“Forward on Climate” Movement, Fully Ready, Leaves Station

Feb 19, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

New England, I'm pleased to say, was well represented at the climate rally in DC this weekend.

“People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.”  Curtis Mayfield.

Before 50,000 committed supporters, from many states and nations and braving frigid wind-chill temps, Bill McKibben announced on Sunday that all of the work he has done for the last 25 years has been in hopeful anticipation of that moment. The moment when the Climate Movement actually took off.

It certainly felt like a fully loaded train with a big head of steam, on a long journey. It was full of people who have gotten more than ready for the trip, and it was a wide-open, broad and inclusive group. Emcee’d by the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, President of the Hip Hop Caucus, speakers ranged from Van Jones (author, former Obama aide and Pres. of Rebuild the Dream) to Chief Jacqueline Thomas (a First Nation Chief in British Columbia) to Maria Cardona (Founder, Latinovations) to Michael Brune (Sierra Club Exec. Director) and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). The crowd was the same – young and old, people of all colors, people of faith and non-believers, northerners, southerners, mid-westerners and westerners, people walking and in chairs.

New England, I’m very pleased to say, was well represented, including large delegations from VT, NH and MA (and I’m sure from RI, ME and CT, but I didn’t find them in the large crowd), and topped off by a rousing address from Senator Whitehouse.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) delivering a rousing address to the crowd.

As Rev. Yearwood put it, “we’re fighting for existence.”

That is not an understatement. Climate models (increasingly showing their accuracy over time, if not underestimation of warming effects) show that unchecked, increasing warming will render large parts of the planet uninhabitable by mammalian life within the next few centuries. If the greater good of humanity (and other species) is not our polar star now, we are failing in our jobs as human beings: to paraphrase Curtis Mayfield again, there is no room among us “for those who would hurt all mankind, just to save [their] own.”

To address a problem that large, it takes a movement. Kudos to Bill McKibben and 350.org, Michael Brune and the Sierra Club, and all of the other groups that have organized, coalesced and launched this train. History will remember them well.

This movement needs to support savvy, well-planned and strategic actions. Sunday’s rally was wisely focused on the Keystone XL pipeline, over which President Obama has unique discretion, under applicable law. While the facts are clear on this one (James Hansen: “game over” for climate if KXL gets built), it is a hugely political game. Circling the White House, calling the President out on his recent commitments to act on climate, playing the political game as it is played, is needed for this vital decision.

But not all vital actions on climate change are like that. We certainly need people in the streets, in villages and barrios, on college campuses and in cornfields and in automobile assembly plants. This is the lifeblood of the movement. But we also need lobbyists and lawyers, economists and highly focused activists, scientists and doctors and investment analysts and progressive regulators – all working the system that shapes our economy.

Shutting down New England’s coal plants, for example, will not happen by marching alone. There is nobody who can do that with the stroke of a pen, as the President can on KXL. Rather, there are many skirmishes and battles to be fought, against extremely entrenched interests who will only succumb when faced with final, non-appealable orders, or when it’s clear they’ll lose more money than their shareholders will accept. The same is true for many fights in the climate campaign: ensuring that any transmission for clean energy is built on the right terms, guarding against overbuilding natural gas infrastructure, fully and properly regulating any fracking activity that is deemed acceptable, adjusting energy markets so that clean energy is favored and dirty energy is disfavored, rebuilding our communities so people don’t need cars as much and can live healthier lives, and many, many more.

“Forward on Climate” is the charge. All the rest is commentary, so to speak. But the commentary – as the Talmudic story goes – is where the work is. We actually move forward by studying and sweating the details, and it takes a long, sustained effort. We’ve been here before. Equal Protection of the laws – what does it really mean? For almost 150 years we’ve been working that out, and paying for it with blood and hopes, dreams and treasure. And lifetimes of effort. Restoring our planet’s climate to some sort of balance – equitable, healthy and just – is another, long-term struggle.

Please join us for this historic journey. Join Conservation Law Foundation. Join other organizations committed to this pivotal fight. We all need your help. And we’ll need it for generations to come. And for their benefit and very survival. “There’s no hiding place” against what we have wrought.

The Pursuit of Clean, Renewable Energy: The “North Atlantic” Right Way

Dec 12, 2012 by  | Bio |  5 Comment »

Yesterday, the North Atlantic right whale was only an historical symbol of one consequence associated with the relentless and unsustainable pursuit of energy.  Today, it is also a new symbol of renewable energy done the right way.  The agreement CLF is announcing today reflects support for the pursuit of renewable energy and also demonstrates that real leadership to change how we pursue energy can come from industry itself.

The pursuit of cheap energy from the 17th century forward hasn’t exactly been what one would call sustainable. From the time the first right whale was killed for its oil to today’s efforts to take and refine oil from the Canadian tar sands, our industries have drawn down limited resources with little regard for the environmental consequences. In fact, the right whale stands as a particularly distressing symbol of our history of exploitation.

The North Atlantic right whale was so-named because it was considered by whalers to be the “right” whale to kill. It was slow, swam close to shore, and was easy to harvest – accommodatingly floating to the surface with a head full of oil after it has been killed. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the North Atlantic right whale, an animal that according to Herman Melville’s 1851 reflections in Moby Dick “would yield you some 500 gallons of oil or more” in just its lip and tongue, was hunted to the brink of extinction. The relentless pursuit of this limited resource in such an unsustainable way is the reason that today the North Atlantic right whale is considered critically endangered, with fewer than 500 animals remaining.

Despite the right whale’s lesson, our reliance on oil continues. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, the United States consumed a total of 6.87 billion barrels (18.83 million barrels per day) in 2011. Our reliance on exhaustible, limited fossil-fuel resources is causing climate change and setting into motion a series of unavoidable consequences, but still we drill for oil – albeit no longer in the head of a whale.

So while today’s landmark North Atlantic right whale agreement is a collection of voluntary measures designed to provide further protections for the North Atlantic right whale, primarily by reducing or avoiding sound impacts from exploratory activities that developers use to determine where to build wind farms, it is also so much more than that.

The offshore wind developers party to this agreement – Deepwater Wind, NRG Bluewater, and Energy Management, Inc. (owner of Cape Wind) – are willing to go above and beyond because they recognized that more could be done to protect North Atlantic right whales in the pursuit of energy. These developers’ willingness, and indeed enthusiasm, for protecting the whales reflects a new way of thinking – a 180-degree turnaround from the way other companies viewed energy generation over the last century and a half.  Instead of treating the natural world as an adversary to be exploited and consumed, these companies recognize that we can accommodate natural systems (like the whales’ migratory patterns and feeding grounds), that we can avoid extracting limited resources, that we don’t have to burn fuels that exacerbate climate change, and that we can still produce the energy to fuel modern society. Now that’s the right way.

Doing The Math, Boston style

Nov 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The unique combination of lecture, rally, music show and secular revival known as the 350.org Do The Math tour came to Boston last night. As has been documented in coverage of earlier stops in the tour this is a very special event that brings together vibrant music, powerful information and an energizing call to action.

CLF proudly played a role in helping this worthy effort gain access to the historic Orpheum Theater in downtown Boston and raising awareness about the event — the seventh straight sold out show in the tour.

CLF President John Kassel took the stage after a very energizing and customized video from 350 Massachusetts energized the crowd with a rap song that somehow pulled together Rex Tillerson, Barack Obama and the fact that the oil companies have “five times as much in the ground as it is safe to burn” – literally putting Bill McKibben’s powerful words to music.

John fired up the crowd with a call for greater funding for public transit (which met with a roar of approval from a crowd who had largely gotten there on the train), finishing the job of ending coal fired power plants in New England that CLF and allies has well underway and a massive push for new renewable energy projects including getting the Cape Wind project over the finish line. John ended by invoking the powerful history of Boston and the possibility that once again, right here and right now we could be again launching a revolution from this city.

For those who were there last night, and didn’t catch up with any of our clipboard toting staff in the lobby, you can join CLF today by clicking here.

John linked together the core message of Do The Math – that our adversary is the fossil fuel industry who have a business model that is incompatible with the survival of humanity – with the specific story told by the Cape Wind Now! campaign that CLF leads – that leaders of that same fossil fuel industry like Bill Koch are doing all they can to stop the flagship Cape Wind clean energy project.

There were many powerful voices on the stage ranging from students to musicians (most notably the Charles Neville Trio, led by one of the legendary Neville Brothers, the first family of New Orleans) to powerful testimony from the great Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein about her recent visit to the storm ravaged neighborhoods of New York. But the undisputed star of the show was Bill McKibben who told the story of how as a 27 year old writer he had published the End of Nature, twenty-five years ago, innocently believing that he could sway decision makers and change the world simply by writing a book and how he had come to appreciate the need for deep and broad action and activism and mobilization across all sectors of society to push back against the interests of the fossil fuel companies who literally have invested in a course of action that will end life as we know it on this planet.

It was an evening of both hope and heavy messages.  An evening filled with information and observations that could bring you to the brink of despair or to the uplifting realization that you have the opportunity to help millions of people across the world, both present and future, by fighting to head off climate catastrophe.  It is the definition of daunting to realize that you are being asked to help accomplish something very important, but difficult, but the message from the stage at Do The Math was that we all must hear and heed the call to action.

When a Fact Check Goes Wrong and Misses the (Clean Energy) Point

Jan 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

The rise of dedicated public fact checking services like PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker has been a generally good thing. However, these services can go astray when they decide that a statement which would be improved with clarification is “false” – a practice that weakens the “false” label when it is applied to an outright falsehood.

This unfortunate phenomena was on display when the Rhode Island edition of PolitiFact critiqued a comment by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about the interplay between the deployment of renewable energy resources like solar panels and ending U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels, like the oil that is refined into gasoline.

In their critique, the Providence Journal staff writing and editing the item examine comments that Senator Whitehouse made in support of federal tax incentives for renewable energy:

“Let me just bring it home,” Whitehouse said, as he referred to his notes. “In Rhode Island, this [grant program] has facilitated solar panel installations on three new bank branches. The TD Bank has opened up in Barrington, in East Providence and in Johnston, Rhode Island. Those projects created jobs, they put people to work, they lowered the cost for these banks of their electrical energy, and they get us off foreign oil and away, step by step, from these foreign entanglements that we have to get into to defend our oil supply.”

The Politi-Fact RI folks decide to look narrowly at the question of whether electricity production from solar panels always and consistently directly reduces use of oil.  This is definitely part of the story and, as I emphasized when I spoke to their reporter when he was working on the “piece, it is a direct relationship that used to be more present back in the days (not too many years ago) when more of our electricity came from oil. But is still a real relationship, especially during the days in the summer when air conditioning drives up electric demand to its highest levels of the year.  As ISO New England (the operator of the regional electric grid) told Politi-Fact RI “oil is used more on days when demand for power is high” although the reporters dismiss this reality (despite the fact that these peak hours are when air pollution is at its worst and the fact that the entire system is designed to meet that moment of peak demand) as “isolated.”

Senator Whitehouse was making three points, only one of which is addressed by the simple “displacement” analysis of what generation is pushed out by deployment of new renewable sources:

  • Moving to cleaner electricity generation from renewable sources like wind and solar is an essential piece in an overall conversion of our economy and energy system (including energy used to move the wheels on our cars, trucks and buses round and round) away from dirty and imported fossil fuels. In places like East Providence RI where TD Bank (as highlighted by Senator Whitehouse) is installing solar panels on the roof of their branches in close proximity to a Chevrolet dealer selling the Chevy Volt you can seeing that future taking shape.
  • Senator Whitehouse’s larger point about ending “foreign entanglements” is of particular significance, moving beyond the question of oil, to people in and around Rhode Island because the largest power plant in what is known in the wholesale electricity world as “Greater Rhode Island” (a geographical label of particular pride and amusement to native Rhode Islanders) is the Brayton Point Power Plant. That facility, just over the border in Somerset Massachusetts, has burnt coal imported from Indonesia and Colombia in recent years.
  • And the direct displacement issue is real: while there is less oil used to generate electricity these days it is worth pondering the overlap between peak solar energy generation (do we really need a link to show that it makes more electricity when it is sunny?) and those peak hours of electricity demand during the summer when it is hottest and air conditioners across the region are roaring away.

All of this suggests that the specific comment by Senator Whitehouse that Politi-Fact Rhode Island evaluated are solidly grounded in facts and accurate observations.

Clean Energy: A Key Ingredient in the Recipe for a Thriving New England Economy

Dec 16, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Courtesy ReillyButler @ flickr. Creative Commons

An incisive and clear essay by Peter Rothstein, President of the New England Clean Energy Council (NECEC), published on the Commonwealth Magazine website makes powerful and accurate points about the benefits of clean energy to the regional economy.  His analysis and arguments are deeply consistent with the points that CLF’s Jonathan Peress made in a recent entry on this blog outlining the benefits of the investments generated by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) documented in a study by the Analysis Group.

Unlike the attacks on the clean energy programs that he is responding to, Rothstein backs his assertions up with facts and figures. Here is a long quotation from his essay:

Clean energy investments have many positive benefits, making our energy infrastructure more efficient and sustainable and while growing the regional economy. Though you might not know it from the headlines, the clean energy sector is one of the few bright spots in the economy, growing steadily throughout the recession – 6.7 percent from July 2010 to July 2011 alone. Massachusetts is now home to more than 4,900 clean energy businesses and 64,000 clean energy workers – 1.5 percent of the Commonwealth’s workforce. This job growth is not a transfer of jobs from other industries – it’s a net increase that results from the Massachusetts innovation economy creating new value for national and international markets, not just local.

 Clean energy is starting to grow in much the same way as the IT and biotech sectors, which took decades to become powerhouses of our innovation economy. Massachusetts clean energy companies have brought significant new capital from around the world into Massachusetts, earning the largest per capita concentration of US Department of Energy innovation awards. Massachusetts companies have also brought in the second largest concentration of private venture capital in cleantech, a sector which grew 10-fold over the last decade.

 Consumers, businesses, and the Massachusetts economy all win if we stick with policies that drive clean energy investments. The combination of efficiency and renewables prescribed by the Green Communities Act is a positive force to control costs and make bills more predictable for consumers. While the prices of natural gas and oil are anything but predictable, the impact of investing in renewables is clear and positive as these technologies continue to get cheaper. Solar costs have come down nearly 60 percent since 2008 while wind turbine prices have dropped 18 percent.

It is indeed good news that new technologies not only confront the brutal logic of climate change but also boost our economy by virtue of being sound investments.  At such times as these, we should treasure every bit of good news we find.

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