Energy in the Great Lakes region: imagining a shared strategy.

Author:Seck, Sara L.

ABSTRACT: This article will reflect upon what it might mean to devise an energy strategy for the Great Lakes region in light of our shared responsibility as stewards of a globally significant fresh water resource at a time of increasing water scarcity associated with climate change. The article argues that we must not let short-term economic fears drive our decision-making or risk adopting policies that will prove detrimental to the long-term futures of our children's children.


The launch of the Council of the Great Lakes Region (CGLR) in April 2013 provides an opportunity to reflect upon what it might mean to imagine a shared strategy for energy policy in the North American Great Lakes Region. As highlighted at the launch conference, the region is defined by a great and shared resource - indeed, one of the greatest in the world. The Great Lakes, a "chain of five large freshwater lakes covering an area of 95,000 square miles," are the "largest lake group in the world" and contain approximately "18% of the world's surface fresh water stores." (1) Representing "84% of North America's fresh water supply," the Great Lakes "provide drinking water to over 40 million households" in Canada and the United States. (2) Given the importance of this critical resource to the region, indeed, to the world, it is vital that governance systems ensure that the quality and quantity of Great Lakes water is protected for both present and future generations. Sadly, as was evident during the CGLR launch panel discussion entitled "Water Governance in the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Region," this is a time of concern for water in the region, with low water levels and other negative impacts being attributed in part to the challenges of climate change.

Global carbon emissions are clearly linked to energy policy, yet the impact of climate change on the Great Lakes is not exclusively caused by greenhouse gas (GNG) emissions originating from the Great Lakes region. (3) Climate change is a global problem that does not respect state or regional borders. Similarly, many energy choices involve the exploitation of natural resources, such as oil & gas, or uranium for nuclear power, that leave a large environmental footprint not contained within the borders of a single state or region. Yet "green" energy choices such as large-scale wind turbines, have been subject to critique for alleged impacts on local environmental health as well as protected species and migratory birds.

Formulating an energy strategy that embraces the essential need for sustainability in the region might seem easy if decision-making was guided purely by concerns with contributing to the avoidance of long-term significant environmental harms on a global scale. But sustainability thinking traditionally embraces a balancing of environment with economic and social concerns. Even while arguably, this balance would over the long-term align with global concerns, the process of devising an energy strategy must in reality confront economic and social challenges that create political pressures for short-term quick-fix solutions. Increasingly, scholars are highlighting that sustainability thinking must also confront the reality of climate change, with some proposing that the concept of resilience may be better suited to decision-making in the Anthropocene than sustainability. (4)

This article will reflect upon what it might mean to devise an energy strategy for the Great Lakes region in light of our shared responsibility as stewards of a globally significant fresh water resource at a time of increasing water scarcity associated with climate change. These reflections will touch upon another theme evident at the CGLR launch--the struggle that the region is facing in economic and employment terms as a consequence of the global economic downturn. The article will argue that we must not let short-term economic fears drive our decision-making or risk adopting policies that will prove detrimental to the long-term futures of our children's children. Drawing upon established principles of international environmental law, and guided by new understandings of the responsibilities of business to respect human rights, the paper will argue that whatever energy strategy is endorsed in the region, it must be one that is developed through an inclusive process that respectfully embraces the challenges put forward by indigenous peoples, and environmentally-concerned individuals and communities. Ultimately, it is crucial that decision-makers in the Great Lakes region no longer deceive themselves into thinking that environmental and economic concerns must be "balanced" off against one another--in truth, these concerns and the future of the Great Lakes region are inextricably intertwined.


Energy law has traditionally been:

[F]ocused on the extraction and production of energy resources with specific goals of short-term efficiency and economic growth. The field has substantively covered in general (1) electricity generation, transmission, and markets, including the laws governing the production, transportation, and sale of fuels used for electricity generation such as nuclear energy, coal, and natural gas; (2) the laws governing fuels used in transportation such as oil and biofuels; and, more recently (3) renewable energy including wind, solar, hydropower, and geothermal energy. (5) Environmental law, on the other hand:

[H]as focused primarily on conservation and protection of land, water, air, species, and resources for purposes of protecting human health as well as for long-term preservation of environmental, culture, and aesthetic values. On a structural level, environmental law did not grow out of economic regulation like energy law, but instead focused on risk assessment and the creation of regulatory tools to limit the environmental impacts of an industrialized society, leading to command-and-control regulation for industrial and other sources of pollution. (6) Increasingly, scholars are arguing that to solve contemporary problems environmental and energy law must converge. (7) From a sustainability perspective, it is crucial that energy choices involve an integrated consideration of economic, social and environmental concerns. Importantly, this requires grappling with the full life cycle assessment of environmental impacts of each choice, from raw material extractions through use to recycling and ultimate disposal, including risk assessment of accidents. (8) An energy strategy in the Great Lakes region should naturally focus much environmental concern upon water, and, indeed, the "inextricably linked" nature of energy and water has been clearly recognized by the Great Lakes Commission. (9) The next parts will sketch what it might mean to consider a variety of energy choices in this way.


A significant portion of the energy use in the Great Lakes region comes from fossil fuels, which are important contributors of GHGs. (10) Indeed, fossil fuels provide about 80% of world energy needs. (11) Much discussion at the CGLR launch panel "Shared Energy Resources and Strategies in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Region" focused upon the importance of natural gas for the region, due to discoveries of shale gas deposits together with the development of hydraulic fracturing technologies that facilitate the extraction of deposits which were previously technologically and economically unfeasible. (12) The potential of natural gas extraction to synergize with economic linkages in the Great Lakes region was highlighted through, for example, a reconfiguring of regional auto-plant manufacturing to support the use of natural gas fuel in regional and even global transportation. (13)

The two CGLR launch conference speakers who focused their remarks on the advantages of natural gas, downplayed environmentalist's concerns with the negative impacts of horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Yet, these concerns clearly exist, and include the venting and flaring of natural gas with the resultant increase in GHG emissions, (14) reduced incentives to move away from fossil fuels due to the low cost of natural gas extraction, thereby exacerbating climate change, (15) and increased impacts on wildlife. (16) In addition, serious concerns are raised with regard to water. For example, according to Schroek & Karisny, the integrity of Great Lakes water:

[I]s threatened by the practice of high-volume, slick-water hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) in the Great Lakes basin. This technique, used to "stimulate" oil and natural gas wells, allowing for increased production, requires the use of millions of gallons of water and has the potential to cause significant water depletion and aquifer contamination. (17) Contamination concerns arise due to the use of chemicals additives in fracking fluids which are injected into the ground together with large quantities of water and sand, the precise nature of which are often kept secret for commercial confidentiality reasons. (18) As a result of these concerns, local community protests against proposed fracking developments are increasingly evident around the world.

Thus, local environmental concerns with the potential for water pollution impacts are raised in connection with natural gas fracking, even as proponents advocate that natural gas could serve a global need as a transition fuel to a carbon-free future, due to its lower GHG emissions when compared to coal. (19)

While a comprehensive comparison is beyond the scope of this article, it is clear that at present there is no consistency in the environmental regulation of hydraulic fracturing in the Great Lakes region. Notably, while hydraulic fracturing is exempt from some environmental regulations in the United States, (20) the province of Quebec recently proposed a temporary moratorium on hydrofracking due to concern over potential environmental impacts; a decision for which the Canadian government...

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