Time to Tap Canada’s Water Riches

Worth A Look, Energy, Frontier Centre

Oil was the focus at the Global Business Forum in Banff, Alta., last week, but water will become the New Oil.

And Canada has an embarrassment of riches, while other nations are sorely disadvantaged. Fresh figures from an expert invited to the conference underscored a very bright future for Canada’s water largesse.

For instance, one pipeline carrying surplus fresh water from Manitoba to Texas could double provincial and municipal government revenues each year.

“It would cost between $4-billion and $9-billion to build a pipeline of water to Texas from Manitoba,” said Paul Wihbey, president of GWEST LLC of Washington. “Annual revenue could be $7-billion, which is about the current budget of the provincial government and City of Winnipeg government combined.”

The problem, of course, is pricing. But that will be sorted out soon as parched areas of the United States and the rest of the world begin to attach economic value to the commodity.

“Bulk-water exports will take place from Canada – Manitoba, Newfoundland, Quebec and British Columbia – in two to five years,” said Mr. Wihbey. GWEST is an acronym for Global Water & Energy Strategy Team and is a think-tank that, among other collaborations, teams up to prepare a quarterly energy report with investment bank FirstEnergy Capital Corp. of Calgary.

Their quarterly reports have examined many related topics since 2003 such as shifting energy centres of gravity, security of supply, terrorism, OPEC, technological breakthroughs and alternative energies.

Ironically, Canada’s wing-nut politicians – Liberals and NDPers in particular – have spoken out against water exports, as though it was somehow bad for the nation or that Canadians would die of thirst.

Some even spoke about water as the “hidden agenda” behind free trade with the United States. But water is in huge surplus in Canada and is, unlike oil or natural gas or metals and minerals, a renewable resource.

Here are the facts Mr. Wihbey recounted, drawn from a number of global sources:

  • Worldwide, 68% of all fresh water is contained in ice caps and glaciers; 30% in groundwater and 2% in surface water. Surface water is the cheapest to harness or transport. Canada has the world’s greatest abundance.
  • About 9% of Canada’s entire acreage is surface water, or roughly the size of British Columbia. (This includes our part of the Great Lakes, which are shared with the United States.)
  • Canada has less than 1% of the world’s population and 20% of its fresh water.
  • Quebec has a minuscule percentage of the world’s population and 3% of the world’s fresh water.
  • Some 0.5% of Newfoundland’s freshwater resources total 1.5 billion cubic metres per year, which could fill 3,000 supertankers annually and make billions annually in export revenue.
  • The United States produces enough water for its needs by using 86 billion gallons per day of surface water and 320 billion gallons per day of groundwater, from wells and aquifers. Many of these underground resources are depleting rapidly, notably in the agricultural Midwest, South and Southwest regions.
  • China’s biggest political and economic problem is the allocation of water. It has 20% of the world’s population and 7% of its global water supply. Some 320 million Chinese are without decent, sufficient supplies.
  • China’s Yellow River did not reach the ocean last year for 200 out of 365 days because levels are so low due to excessive industrial and agricultural usage.
  • The Middle East has 5% of the world’s population and 1% of its water. The population of the Middle East by 2020 will grow from 260 million to 460 million.
  • Mexico City is overpopulated and urban areas are beginning to be plagued with sizeable sinkholes as groundwater is removed beneath structures.
  • Water was the topic at this forum, mostly concerned with oil issues, because production around the world is increasingly dependent upon readily available water supplies. Water is used to inject steam to coax heavy, less-valuable oil out of underground fields, as well as heavily used in the upgrading and mining process for Alberta’s gigantic oilsands.

    In fact, some have worried that semi-arid Alberta doesn’t have sufficient water to sustain the development of the oilsands, where production is estimated to grow from one million barrels daily to four million barrels by 2015.

    “There is no problem there,” said Mr. Wihbey. “The oil and gas industry has been allocated 7.2% of potable water in the province, which is more than enough.”

    Hopefully, water won’t be a rallying cry for the economically and technologically ignorant left-of-centre parties in Canada or its provinces.

    Fresh water represents another massive opportunity bestowed on the country, which could benefit every Canadian in future. As well, it’s a matter of responsible stewardship. The price and terms must be fair.