Climate change missing in Enbridge Northern Gateway assessment

Ignoring climate change is a critical omission that further undermines the credibility of an already flawed Enbridge Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment (ESA) for decision-making.

Our environment is changing rapidly and these changes are occurring faster than we can understand them. Climate disruption during the last decades has promoted a reorganization of biological communities, influencing the interrelationships of species and their distributions. Wildlife are now experiencing chronic alterations of local and regional ecology because of changes in global climate (e.g., snowpack depths, timing of snowmelt in spring, availability of standing water in summer). In all likelihood, this process will continue and intensify in the future.

Given the intense influence of climate on the natural environment, as formal interveners in the Northern Gateway federal review process, we at Raincoast Conservation Foundation were disconcerted that climate change was not considered in the Enbridge Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment (ESA). The proposed Northern Gateway project would see a 1,170 kilometer twin pipeline constructed from Alberta’s tar sands to a marine terminal on the north coast of British Columbia, where VLCC’s (Very Large Crude Carriers) would ship diluted bitumen to offshore markets in China and the United States. According to the journal Nature, “Canada’s tar sands stand out in a ranking of total greenhouse gas emissions associated with different types of oil.” Moreover, in light of the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, this oversight, deliberate or unintended, is more dismaying by the day.

Climate change directly affects key aspects of the project assessment, including underlying assumptions, results, interpretations, conclusions and analyses of risk. For example, an increased risk of flooding resulting from warmer temperatures and higher rainfall, which climate models predict for the west coast, also means an increased risk of exposed pipelines. Similarly, increased insect outbreaks could extensively alter forest ecosystems and their ability to maintain previous soil, moisture and temperature conditions. Ignoring the influence of climate change is a critical omission that further undermines the credibility and usefulness of an already flawed Enbridge ESA for decision-making.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that climate change poses a major threat to biodiversity and human livelihoods. The IPCC also states the current concentration and rate of increase of CO2 in the atmosphere exceed that of the last 420,000 years. Climate change influences abiotic components such as glaciers, rivers, lakes, and oceans, which in turn drive changes in the physical landscape and biota that are linked to them. A new study by an international team of scientists and published in Nature Climate Change has found that many fish and plankton are relocating towards the North and South poles at an astonishing rate of hundreds of kilometres per decade in response to climate change.

Human-caused warming already has a discernable influence on many physical and biological systems. The IPCC predicts that resilience of many ecosystems will be exceeded within this century by an unprecedented combination of changing climate and subsequent disturbances, combined with land-use change, pollution, and over exploitation of resources. Accordingly, the IPCC forecasts an increased risk of species extinctions as global temperatures rise.

Habitat fragmentation caused by large-scale resource extraction, such as industrial forestry, coupled with global climate change, could spell the decline or end of untold numbers of species. For example, under long-term drought, bears in British Columbia could find difficulty foraging for salmon in drying streams, for skunk cabbage roots in shrinking wetlands, or for shrivelling berry crops in less productive forests. The influence of climate change on forest ecosystems may cause species ranges to shift in elevation and latitude — some expanding and some shrinking.

A recent report on climate change impacts in California by the state’s Environmental Protection Agency reveals approximately half the species of small mammals in Yosemite National Park have now moved their habitat ranges to higher elevations.

Summertime stream temperatures, seasonal low flows and changes in peak and base flows are presently changing because of climate disruption. Simulations predict that rising water temperatures and reduced stream flow will become increasingly severe later in the twenty-first century. Already, we are seeing these conditions. The Pacific Salmon Commission recently announced that Fraser River discharge was roughly 25% lower and temperature was 1.4 °C higher than average for this date.

Watersheds that are strongly influenced by a mix of direct runoff from cool-season rainfall and springtime snowmelt are most susceptible to climate change. This is of vital importance to salmon, which are sensitive to high water temperature during their migration up-river to spawn.

The combined effects of higher stream temperatures and reduced flows in the summer and more flooding in the winter does not bode well for the survival of many BC salmon populations. These conditions are stressful, if not intolerable, for young salmon that rely on freshwater habitat in the summer or adults that have to migrate upstream. Increased winter flooding will also carry away eggs and salmon larvae.

The astoundingly fast changes that are now occurring show that long-relied upon approaches to static environmental assessment do not reflect emerging ecological conditions. Rather, once stable and predictable habitats are now being replaced by moving targets. This creates unprecedented levels of uncertainty. Yet, environmental change owing to climate disruption is completely ignored in the Northern Gateway assessment. This is such a critical deficiency that the efficacy of the Enbridge ESA is not only seriously undermined, but is arguably rendered effectively irrelevant in terms of its calculation of real world impacts.

A version of this article was previously published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, as well as at The Huffington Post on September 7, 2013.

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Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.