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Andrew Burger headshot

Canadian Watershed's Oil Sands Pose Challenge for Keepers

By Andrew Burger

Exploitation of vast oil sands deposits in Canada's Mackenzie River Basin has impacts that stretch far beyond Canada's borders, mineral and energy resource extraction and the ongoing political push in the U.S. to see Transcanada's Keystone XL pipeline built. About three times the size of France, the Mackenzie River watershed stretches across a 1.8 million square kilometer area (~20 percent of Canada's total land area) that includes massive deposits of oil sands.

The Mackenzie River Basin supports a diversity of plant and animal life that includes pristine forests and other vital wildlife habitat, including populations of birds that migrate as far as South America. It's also home to a wealth of fossil fuel energy and mineral resources. That combination poses complex challenges for the Canadian government in particular and puts a premium on finding the ways and means of sustainably managing this vast, natural resource-rich region.

“The governance of Canada's massive Mackenzie River Basin holds enormous national but also global importance due to the watershed's impact on the Arctic Ocean, international migratory birds and climate stability,” according to experts convening a special forum on the topic. They're calling on Canadian and other national leaders to establish an international land and water management regime for the Mackenzie River watershed.

Oil sands, water, forests & wildlife
The Rosenberg Forum is meeting Sept. 5-7 at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University with the support of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation in order to identify legal and scientific principles relevant to the processes leading ultimately to a coordinated basin-wide approach to management, as well as prioritizing knowledge gaps,” according to a press release.

"Relevant parties in western Canada have recognized the need for a multi-party transboundary agreement that will govern land and water management in the Mackenzie River watershed,” University of California Prof. Henry Vaux, Rosenberg Forum's chair, stated in a press release.

“Successful collaboration will effectively determine the management regime for a watershed covering 1.8 million square kilometers or about 20 percent of Canada - an area roughly three times the size of France - and include the country's vast oil sands."

Stretching some 1,800 km, the Mackenzie River is Canada's longest. It carries some 10.3 million liters of water into the Arctic Ocean-- enough to fill four Olympic swimming pools-- every second. Along with the water comes some 100 million tons of sediment per year, according to estimates.

A vital watershed
Besides oil sands deposits, the Mackenzie Basin is a vital watershed. It includes three major lake - Great Slave, Great Bear, and Athabasca — that together hold some 4,000 cubic km of water, as well as many rivers, including the Peace, Athabasca, Liard, Hay, Peel, South Nahanni and Slave, the Rosenberg Forum notes.

The Gordon Foundation in 2011 released a report urging the Canadian government to “work with jurisdictions in the basin to implement a world-class water monitoring program and support credible, independent water research.”

"The starting point of good water policy is knowledge and the starting point of knowledge is to monitor on a regular basis the quality of water in the Mackenzie Basin - for the health of the North, Canada and the world," president and CEO of the Toronto-based foundation Thomas X. Axworthy said.

Highlighting the complexity and difficulty of the task, Canada's federal government is working with those of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan - Canada's three westernmost provinces - the Yukon and Northwest Territories to set goals for surface and groundwater quality and quantity, emergency notification requirements, information exchange protocols and dispute resolution processes.
"Anything less than a basin-wide program with strict water quality and quantity standards, backed by binding requirements for prior notification and consultation and dispute resolution, will squander an opportunity to finally give the Mackenzie Basin a governance regime that will protect it for future generations," commented J. Owen Saunders, adjunct law professor at the University of Calgary and former executive director of the Canadian Institute of Resources Law.

The value of Mackenzie River Basin's oil, gas, timber and mineral resources need to be balanced against the value of the water, habitat, biodiversity and ecosystem services the watershed supports, Rosenberg Forum members assert.

Researchers have put a non-market value of the watershed's natural ecosystem goods and services — which includes carbon storage, water filtration, water supply and 14 others - of nearly $571 billion per year as of 2005. Some 59 percent of that ($339 billion) was attributed to the storage and annual absorption of carbon by the basin's forests, peatlands, wetlands and tundra.

*Graphic credit: The Gordon Foundation

Andrew Burger headshotAndrew Burger

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

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