The Great Lakes: I Have Good News and Bad News

The good news…

President Bush has signed into law a ban on diverting water from the Great Lakes Basin to thirsty regions outside the eight so-called Great Lakes states, and Quebec and Ontario. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is the result of a decade-long effort to strengthen legal protections against diverting water from the system of the five lakes, their connecting channels and the St. Lawrence River. (Though there is at least one very important exception to the ban.)

Negotiations leading to this pact began back in 1998 when an Ontario consulting firm proposed shipping 598 million litres of Lake Superior water per year to Asia, an idea that sent shivers down the spines of environmentalists, water policy experts and many Great lakes residents who depend on this resource for their own drinking water supply.

The bad news…

According to a study released today from the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre, no fewer than 17 major refinery expansions around the lakes are being considered to process bitumen from Alberta tar sands into gasoline and other petroleum products. From the report:

“This expansion promises to bring with it an exponential increase in pollution, discharges into waterways including the Great Lakes, destruction of wetlands, toxic air emissions, acid rain, and huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions.” (See Globe and Mail story)

Most of these proposed expansions would be years from today, but now is the time to be asking questions about the wisdom of adding massive refineries along the Great lakes shores. What’s so important about this region? Well…

The Great Lakes region – Ontario and Quebec plus the eight U.S. states – is home to 103 million people. If it were taken as a country the Great Lakes regional non-farm economy, at $4.1 trillion GDP, would be ranked as the third largest in the world, after only the United States and Japan.

The region supports 48.5 million jobs and is home to nineteen of the top-ranked 100 universities in the world. One of the reasons the region developed into such a global strength is because the Great Lakes region contains about 20% of the world’s fresh surface water and is a place where people want to live and work and enjoy the recreational opportunities provided in the Great Lakes St. Lawrence River basin.

The region is a unique economic, social and cultural community and a vital global hub of activity. Furthermore, the health and quality of life of the region’s residents depends greatly on the environment – on clean air and clean water, and on a healthy and safe place to build a sustainable future.

Any activity — such as tar sands oil refineries perhaps? — that threaten the fragile ecosystem of this region should be examined carefully, openly and early.