Canada’s federal government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is systematically removing regulations and putting the country’s water at risk, according to a new report released this week by the Council of Canadians.
“Blue Betrayal,” written by Maude Barlow, a former UN adviser on water and national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, states that the Harper government has allowed mining companies to dump toxic waste into lakes, exempted oil and gas pipelines from environmental review, and allowed for-profit companies to sue for the right to use clean, potable water in fracking and other commercial applications.
The oil and gas industry in Canada is booming. Since 2008, when Harper took office, Canadian tar sands production has nearly doubled, according to an industry report. This has huge implications for water. Alberta’s tar sands alone could eventually use 20 million barrels of water each day, scientists estimate. Already, according to the report, nearly 3 million gallons of “toxic water” enters Canada’s watershed every day. Water used for oil and gas extraction is contaminated with a variety of toxic chemicals that are difficult, if not impossible, to remove.
“There is a clear and intimate link between energy policy and fresh water protection,” Emma Lui, a representative for the Council of Canadians, told ThinkProgress.
Environmentalists say the drastic reductions in regulatory oversight for Canada’s waterways are largely due to pressure from the oil and gas industry.
The Polaris Institute, a Canadian think tank, found that since 2008, two years after Harper took office, federal officials met with oil industry representatives more than four times as often as they met with environmentalists. Harper previously worked for the Exxon-owned Imperial Oil Limited.
In 2012, Canada’s federal omnibus bill modified the 120-year-old Navigable Waters Protection Act, a move that stripped environmental protections from 99 percent of Canada’s lakes and rivers. The reduced legislation is now called the Navigation Protection Act. The government also gutted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, immediately causing 3,000 environmental reviews to be cancelled, including on some oil and gas projects. One of the changes made pipelines running under waterways exempt from environmental review, Lui said.
Canada has a two-pronged domestic energy extraction industry: shale oil and gas, and tar sands oil. Both are the subject of environmental concern as well as litigation.
A member of Ontario’s provincial parliament this week proposed a fracking ban for his province. Meanwhile, under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an American oil and gas company is challenging Quebec’s right to ban fracking.
But while provincial governments seek to curb fracking, Alberta’s tar sands oil industry pumps on.
Tar sands produce heavy, bitumen crude. Unlike most types of oil, bitumen sinks in water, which makes spills more difficult to clean up and more environmentally destructive. In 2010, a pipeline in Michigan ruptured, spilling 800,000 gallons of bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. It was the costliest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
Crude oil is primarily transferred via pipeline and rail, but in a move that could threaten water even more, some companies are proposing shipping the crude by boat in the Saint Lawrence River and across the Great Lakes. At the end of last year, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources delayed approval of a crude oil transfer dock proposed on Lake Superior.
The Great Lakes supply drinking water for 40 million people and supports 250 different species of fish. A bitumen spill in the lakes could be disastrous.
“The U.S. Coast Guard will tell you they do not have the ability to respond to and clean up a spill of heavy crude oil in the Great Lakes,” Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of Alliance for the Great Lakes, a U.S.-based environmental group, told ThinkProgress. “Canadian energy policy could have a significant effect on the Great Lakes region.”
Canadians will have a chance to change those policies come October, when Harper is up for re-election. Thomas Mulcair, the New Democratic Party candidate, has called for increasing the review process for pipeline projects and criticized Harper’s “gutting” of the process. Justin Trudeau, the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, approves of the Keystone pipeline project but not of the Northern Gateway Pipeline.
Beyond North America, the election could have implications globally, as well. To date, Canada, under Harper, is the only country to have ratified and then withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol. Both of Harper’s main challengers believe Canada should be at the forefront of addressing climate change.