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Catastrophic Oil Spill Threat to Canadian River Basin

By Paul Brown, Climate News Network

LONDON – The Mackenzie River Basin, a vast globally important area in Canada, is at great risk from climate change and a catastrophic oil spill from the tailing ponds of tar sands mining, according to a panel of nine Canadian, American and British scientists.

The warning came just days after the Canadian Oil Producers Association says it expects oil production from tar sands in the region to double by 2030.

The Mackenzie River Basin showing how it drains north to the Arctic Ocean.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Rosenburg International Forum on Water Policy

report produced after a series of hearings last year says effective governance is vital for the river basin, which is five times the size of France. Water pours into the Arctic Ocean from the 1118 mile-long Mackenzie River at the rate of four Olympic sized swimming pools a second.

The watershed’s biodiversity and its important role in hemispheric bird migrations, stabilizing climate, and the health of the Arctic Ocean means it needs protection urgently.

Methane Release Fear

Already the temperatures in the region have increased more than 2°C (3.6°F) as a result of climate change and permafrost areas are melting causing damage to roads, bridges and homes. It is also deforming the ground and changing water flows.

The report says that large quantities of methane trapped in the soil by permafrost are in danger of being released threatening to rapidly increase the rate of climate change.

Glacier cover has declined 25 percent in the last 25 years and in spring snow cover on the Canadian Rockies disappears about a month earlier. The vast area contains 45,000 productive lakes, which also need protection.

The panel, convened by the U.S.-based Rosenburg International Forum on Water Policy, identified the exploitation of the region’s mineral and fossil fuels as a major threat to its biodiversity, the Arctic and a threat to the way of life of the indigenous peoples.

Cutting the forests and the danger to river life from hydro-electric dams needs to be tightly controlled, the scientists say.

The biggest single current threat is the existing tailing ponds on the lower Athabasca River. If a breach occurred in the winter it would be “virtually impossible to clean up because it would disappear underneath the ice and run down through the whole waterway” through Lake Athabasca, the Slave River and Delta, the Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River and Delta and as far as the Beaufort Sea.

This would have an unprecedented effect on human societies in the North West territories.

Weak Management

The report – concerned about the financial resources required to deal with a spill -includes a strong recommendation that “extractive industries be required to post a significant performance bond before site development and operations commence.”

Already the temperatures in the region have increased more than 2C as a result of climate change and permafrost areas are melting causing damage to roads, bridges and homes.
Credit: Terry Parker/Pique News Magazine

“This ensures that cleanup costs and mitigation following closure of the site will be fully paid by the industry itself.”

“Failure to require a significant performance bond or some similar incentive almost surely means that the legacy of despoiled environments, toxic wastes and other waste will continue unabated, and that taxpayers will be left to bear costs that are properly those of the mining industry,” the report says.

Another of the panel’s main findings was that the ecology, hydrology and climate of the region were all at risk and already changing as a result of planetary warming. Careful investigation was needed to try and reduce the effects and dangers. “This is essential to protect the welfare of people locally and to some extent globally,” the report said.

The basin is so large it is administered by three different Canadian states and although there was a Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Master Agreement of 1997 the Board that was set up to manage it is weak. The Federal Government of Canada should take overall responsibility for the basin and the Board must be strengthened. “A reinvigorated Board will need significantly more financial support and will benefit from the advice and counsel of an independent International Science Advisory Committee,” the report says.

The extractive industries and the impact of hydroelectricity schemes must be carefully controlled.

Paul Brown is a joint editor at Climate News Network. Climate News Network is a news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.


By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on June 16th, 2013

This report – and others - describes the Mackenzie River Basin as Canada’s Cold Amazon. By various measures it is believed that the region has a similar scale of global environmental importance to that of the Amazon basin. Unfortunately, this report also points to similarities in the way that resource exploitation threatens to degrade / destroy that ecosystem with potentially serious global repercussions.

It feels like I’ve seen this movie before. Natural resource exploitation, environmental impact studies, warnings from scientists, detailed recommendations, discussions, more studies and reports, meanwhile more exploitation….  It never seems to end well for the environment.

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By Peter Malsin (Hanover, NH 03755)
on June 16th, 2013

Thanks for this report. Short of the coast, western Canada has become a scary wild West, its hydrocarbon fever more intense and scarier than the fracking & new-oil madness coursing through the US.

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By sylvia schaffler (kenora)
on June 16th, 2013

I wonder what it will take to stop this madness? There are so many other resources available to us yet we seem to be helpless against gov’t and corporate greed. I believe criminal action is required!

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By James Hrynyshyn (28773)
on June 17th, 2013

There ate no Canadian “states,” just provinces and territories.

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By Constance MacKinnon (Castlegar)
on June 17th, 2013

If only scientists governed the world!

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By bill powder (yellowknife)
on June 18th, 2013

life is freshwater

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