Major companies including mining juggernaut Teck Resources, the world’s largest aluminum maker Rio Tinto Alcan and natural gas processor WestCoast Energy Inc. pay shockingly little for water they take from British Columbia’s lakes, rivers and streams.
Of greater concern, most industrial water users rarely, if ever, are required to meter and report their actual water use to the provincial regulator.
“It is troubling just how laxly regulated our biggest water users are,” says Ben Parfitt, an analyst with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), who crunched the numbers.
“For less than the cost of a pint of beer, the biggest, most polluting industries on the planet get to suck up the equivalent of an Olympic-size swimming pool’s worth of our water. Most industries are pumping the equivalent of tens of thousands of such pools out of our rivers, lakes and streams every year yet don’t even have to report how much water they actually use. The whole system is based on trust. It practically invites abuse.”
At present, there is no publicly available information on the amount of water consumed by major industries in the province. To arrive at its numbers, the CCPA relied on data contained in water licence documents and on a provincial water rental fee schedule to generate its numbers.
Parfitt then tabulated the top ten non-residential sectors using water in the province and the largest users in each category. Farmers were excluded from the list because food production is a necessity. Hydroelectric producers were also excluded because they do not pay for water consumed but rather pay a levy based on the water flowing through electrical turbines and then released back to the environment.
The list shows that the industry holding the most water rights in the province is the pulp and paper sector, followed closely by fish hatcheries and processors and manufacturers like refineries and mines.
The list of the top companies consuming water includes WestCoast Energy’s Taylor gas plant (86.6 million cubic metres or 34,673 Olympic swimming pools), Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kitimat aluminum smelter (79 million cubic metres or 31,625 Olympic swimming pools) and Catalyst Paper’s Crofton pulp mill (53.6 million cubic metres or 21,444 Olympic swimming pools).
Other major industrial water consumers include fracking giant Ovintiv (formerly Encana) and Teck Resources’ Elkview coal and Highland Valley copper mines.
No industry paid more than $5.62 for each Olympic swimming pool’s worth of water they used.
In virtually every industry, companies pay the government based on the maximum volume of water they are licensed to use, regardless of whether they use the water or not. But because there is no metering requirement in place, it is anyone’s guess how much water is actually being used.
The one exception to this rule is the pulp and paper industry, which successfully lobbied the provincial government for a two-tiered rate with a lower rate applied when conservation goals are achieved. The industry obtained the discount rate after agreeing to meter and report its water use. It currently pays a lower rate on about one third of its water.
The CCPA is calling on the provincial government to take immediate steps to ensure greater transparency in the reporting of water used by major industries as well as increased environmental monitoring.
“There is ample evidence that natural gas companies fracking in the northeast of the province have violated water rules by building dams and massive dugouts without permits and good reason to believe that this has resulted in unreported water diversion and use,” Parfitt said.
The CCPA is calling on the government to do the following:
- Require all industrial water users to meter and electronically file their water use.
- Prepare an annual industrial water-use report and searchable database that identifies all water users, their metered water use and their primary water sources.
- Review all industrial water rental rates to determine whether the revenues collected encourage conservation and protection of water resources. The review should consider the value of expanding the two-tiered pricing model used by pulp and paper companies.
- Immediately review the fracking industry to determine whether its current and projected water use is sustainable and whether it is being properly tracked.
- Direct a portion of all collected water revenues to comprehensive watershed planning.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is an independent, non-partisan think tank that researches social, economic and environmental justice issues.