Red Chris Mine Tailings Pond

B.C. wants to know how much it’s going to cost fracking, mining industries to adapt to climate change

The province wants to better understand the economic impact events such as droughts will have on the natural resources and building sectors — and the costs of different adaptation measures

Amid efforts to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions across British Columbia, the provincial government is looking for new insight into the threat climate change poses to natural resource industries and the business case for investing in measures to guard against the worst impacts. 

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change recently issued a request for proposals for economic case studies examining the climate risks to the agriculture, forestry, mining, oil and gas, and building sectors — as well as an analysis of various adaptation measures and the costs of inaction.

 Several proposals were submitted by Monday’s deadline, a spokesperson for the ministry said in an email, adding that they expect to award the contract in the coming weeks. Final reports are expected by the end of September.

“That kind of information is pretty rare to find in the climate adaptation and impact space, so it’s really great to see this provincial work going forward,” said Jim Vanderwal, the director of climate change programs at the Fraser Basin Council, which has been working with communities across B.C. to help them with climate change preparations.

The province is already feeling the impacts of climate change, said Karen Tam Wu, the regional director for British Columbia at the Pembina Institute. “We all remember stories of wildfires and floods.”

“So, the province taking steps to understand what the cost implications are and how we need to adapt our industries and our natural infrastructure to be able to cope with the impacts of climate change that we’re feeling now is really important,” she said.

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In a statement to The Narwhal, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said “establishing a robust evidence base of adaptation case studies will lead to a more rigorous climate preparedness and adaptation strategy and will improve the government’s ability to make informed decisions regarding future climate change impacts.”

While the ministry has not decided whether the reports will be released to the public, Tam Wu said they should be.

“Transparency about why we’re making certain decisions and how we’re taking action to address the impacts that we’re feeling now is important for British Columbians to understand,” she said.

“The cost of inaction is inevitably going to be greater and I think that’s something that’s really hard for people to wrap their heads around.”

While prospective applicants were given the option to submit their own case study proposals, the ministry’s request identified a number of potential study areas — including the impact of flooding, water availability, landslides and warming temperatures on various sectors.

“A lot of communities are trying to grapple with what [climate change] means for them, what they need to do to be better prepared and really the economic side of it is probably the least well understood,” Vanderwal said. But, he added, it can really help people understand the magnitude of the problem.

As we wait for the research, here’s what we already know about the risk to B.C.’s natural resource industries and the potential costs to adapt as the climate changes. 

Boundary Bay salt marsh

Over the next three decades, sediment will slowly be deposited in the salt marsh in B.C.’s Boundary Bay to turn it into a living dike. Photo: Jennifer Osborne / The Narwhal

Farmland vulnerable to flooding in Fraser Valley 

While farmers in the Fraser Valley and parts of Vancouver Island might benefit from a longer growing season with climate change, they’ll also have to contend with more frequent and intense rainstorms and a higher risk of flooding. Growers in the Interior, meanwhile, could face more frequent droughts as summers get hotter and drier.

A 2016 report by the Fraser Basin Council found a major Fraser River flood in the Lower Mainland in 2100 could cost more than $32 billion — more than five times the price of Alberta’s 2013 floods.

The risks to the agricultural sector alone are significant. The report found more than 43,000 hectares of farmland are vulnerable to Fraser River flooding and that the costs of a major flood could cost between $700 million and $1.6 billion in lost sales, replanting and damage to equipment and buildings.

As the B.C. government looks for ways to reduce the impacts of flooding, including potential economic losses, it may look to one adaptation measure already underway: an innovative pilot project at Boundary Bay to slowly raise the elevation of the salt marsh in the coming decades to create a natural dike system to guard against sea level rise.

How a salt marsh could be a secret weapon against sea level rise in B.C.’s Fraser delta

Drought and the fracking industry

In northeastern B.C., climate impacts on water availability could have major consequences for the natural gas industry, which relies heavily on water for hydraulic fracturing. Some companies have already had to truck water from larger rivers into drilling sites during periods of low flow on smaller waterways over the last several years, according to the ministry’s request for proposals. 

The BC Oil and Gas Commission has suspended water use in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2018 due to low water levels and last summer warned the industry it may again have to suspend water withdrawals due to warm and dry weather in the Peace River and Liard River basins. Streams that aren’t fed by snowmelt from the mountains were a particular concern, the commission noted.

“We know these things happen, but we don’t really know what it all means, like what’s the cost of companies having to change their operations to deal with that, what does it look like 30 years,” Vanderwal said.

One of the potential case studies the ministry suggested is an analysis of the economic impacts of water scarcity on the oil and gas sector and the costs and benefits associated with different adaptation options, such as water recycling, trucking water from more stable sources or using deep groundwater.

“Water is the keystone issue in relation to climate risk in the northeast,” says a 2015 climate risk assessment of the region’s oil and gas sector by the Fraser Basin Council and other groups. “Improving information on future water supply and demand, and encouraging innovative water practices with the industry, are very important.”

Buildings not built for heat waves

Alongside natural resource industries, the ministry has asked for studies that examine the business case for potential adaptations to the climate risks facing the building sector. This includes the threat of overheating, a potentially significant public health concern and, in some regions, an increased risk of landslides. 

“Today’s existing buildings were not designed to meet the cooling requirement of a warming climate or increasing risk of heat waves,” the request for proposals notes. “Overheating in buildings poses direct risks to occupant health and wellbeing, with increased impacts on social housing tenants who have fewer resources.”

A potential case study, the ministry says, could look at the cost and benefits of retrofits to low-rise apartment buildings.

Another area of focus could include investigating ways to stem landslide risk in the Quesnel region, such as moving at risk houses, changing requirements for new developments or lowering ground water levels through drainage systems.

Climate change risks to forestry industry

In addition to concerns about the climate impacts of both old growth and clear-cut logging, climate change also poses a threat to the day-to-day operations of the forestry sector, a long-time economic driver in many B.C. communities. 

Natural Resources Canada says climate change will affect forests in varied and interconnected ways. Changes to tree growth rates and even the types of trees that make up the forests could affect both the quantity and quality of wood products. 

“Such swings have major implications for forestry-reliant rural economies,” the federal department says on its website

Climate change has already been linked to changes in the forest that have affected the industry — from mountain pine beetle infestations in B.C. to increasing wildfire activity across the West. Between the early 1990s and 2017, the industry lost an estimated 752 million cubic metres of lodgepole pine to the beetle infestation. 

Inland-Temperate-Rainforest-TheNarwhal-0128 Taylor Roades

Clear cut logging in the Anzac River Valley. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Mining and climate change

Climate change not only poses a risk to the water supplies mining operations rely on in regions where summer droughts are becoming more common, in some areas extreme events, such as heavy rainstorms and wildfires, may also threaten mine and transportation infrastructure, according a 2012 presentation by the Mining Association of Canada on the risks climate change poses to the mining sector. 

The risk of environmental contamination may also be heightened with climate change due to extreme weather and changes to ground and surface water levels and flows, the presentation notes.

These are challenges mining companies are facing around the world. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company found 30 to 50 per cent of the world’s copper, gold, iron ore and zinc production is concentrated in areas with already high water stress. Meanwhile, extreme rainstorms and flooding have already affected mine operations in some regions and the problem is only expected to get worse. 

In its request for proposals the ministry suggested one case study could investigate the economic impact of water scarcity on the mining industry and the potential gains from different adaptation options.

Some work on climate adaptation is already underway. Last year, the federal government announced $325,000 in funding for a project aimed at helping mine operators prepare for changes.

Charles Dumaresq, the vice president of science and environmental management at the Mining Association of Canada, told the Narwhal he hopes the project — climate change risk and adaptation best practices for the mining sector — will be released before the end of this year. 

The document lays out a “thinking process” to help mine operators identify the implications of climate change at specific mine sites, Dumaresq said. 

“So, what might the mean annual temperature be 50 years from now? Might you be getting more precipitation 50 years from now? Might you be more prone to drought 50 years from now?” he explained. 

The next step would require mine operators to study how those changes in local climate could affect mine infrastructure or operations. For instance, miners may consider whether a remote air strip is vulnerable to permafrost melt or if water treatment infrastructure, such as tailings ponds, is vulnerable to extreme events. 

And finally, miners could identify the adaptation options and the costs and benefits of each, Dumaresq said.

“Although the examples that are in the document are mining specific, I think a lot of the principles that are there would be just as applicable to municipalities, to Indigenous communities, to other kinds of industries,” he said, adding the project could have value outside the mining sector.

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