Alberta’s Oil Sands: Water

The oil sands in Northern Alberta has many environmental issues surrounding it; including greenhouse gas emissions, destruction of the boreal forests and the contamination and depletion of its water sources.

The oil industries surface mining has removed huge areas of boreal forests that was home to many animals. Not only that, but it has created massive tailing ponds which consist of toxic substances. As a waste repository, the environment can only manage to assimilate a certain amount of pollution. So, the toxic dumping occurring in the Athabasca River can only absorb a small amount of it, hence the disastrous effects on aquatic life.

In the end as oil sources become depleted in other places and the enormous global demand for oil continues, it means that stopping the environmental damage will be a vast undertaking. One that will take many years and have great costs associated with that reversal.

In Northern Alberta covering an area of boreal forest that is approximately the size of the US state of Illinois, is where the valuable oil or bitumen lays. These oil sands are extremely water intensive, as extracting the bitumen requires barrels and barrels of it. Causing depletion of wetlands and lakes.

Canada’s oil reserves are number 3 in the world when it comes to extractable oil. In first place is Venezuela at 300 billion barrels then Saudi Arabia which has 268.5 billion barrels and then Canada at 170 billion barrels of oil. The oil sands however have had a huge economic impact estimated to be at over dollars in 170 billion in GDP for Canada alone.

Extraction of bitumen from inside the earth is a very complex and costly endeavor and those companies that do so, approximately 12 companies, have a net profit in the billions. Water depletion is a serious issue that is coming to the forefront of issues that must be dealt with immediately. The huge economic impacts for Canada have prevented proper regulations and incentives for water use and contamination.

Close to 65% of our water is allocated for use by agriculture or farming. The population of earth is doubling quite quickly and if the current trend of growth continues, then by 2025 more than two thirds of people on this planet will be without access to any water.

The water sources in Northern Alberta are quickly being contaminated and depleted by the oil sands industry. It takes an enormous amount of water to create just a single barrel of crude oil, approximately 2 to 5 barrels of water is required just to create that one barrel.

These oil sands are also located within the prairie region meaning there are occasional long term droughts that can affect exactly how much water is available.

The Athabasca deposit is the largest deposit, as seen in this picture showing the areas where the oil sands are located in Alberta. The river used most by these oil companies is the Athabasca River, which is their prime source for water as well as the largest source near the oil deposits.
Source: Troubled Waters, Troubling Trends: Technology and Policy Options to Reduce Water use in Oil and Oil Sands Development in Alberta.

The Alberta government gives licenses to these oil companies, allowing them to have the water they need to run their refinieries, even though there may be a drought they don’t stop withdrawing water.

In the winter months the flow of water becomes less than that of summer and can adversely affect fish and aquatic life. As Tony Clarke author of Tar Sands Showdown, very dramatically points out,

“In 2005 the tar sands industry was allocated for its mining and in situ production, water withdrawals from the Athabasca river system that amounted to more than twice the volume of water used annually by the entire city of Calgary (population 1.2 million)”

This is quite alarming as this water once gone is hard to get back and once a lake is drained it’s gone. Alberta will need to look farther and farther for water sources as the oil industry drains its sources.

Impacts & The Future

The toxicity in the waterways is known to have affected fish such as those found to have tumors or mutations.

This is a burden on the First Nations people who heavily rely on the fish for food and serving fish that is possibly toxic is a hard decision to make. The droughts in the winter can also adversely affect fish because of the lessened oxygen supply. Those fish who are just about to hatch, are affected by a delay in being able to hatch and also affects the spawning.

There can be very adverse impacts on the actual health of fish and also the health of those animals and humans who consume these fish.

The government’s knowledge of how the oil sands are affecting the environment and its potential future impacts are largely unknown. Their data was outdated and incomplete, so we cannot be entirely sure of what the long term effects will be.

This also shows how little the government knows about its own water resources and their effects. More research and planning need to go into the future if their water resources are to continue being sustainable.

In Alberta economy seems to come first before the environment, so when attempting to stop damage people will be highly resistant. A lot of people rely unfortunately on this industry for their living and most people I think will very much be against any type of environmental related changes that will affect their livelihood.

Unfortunately, a lot of damage has already been done to the environment, as the huge tailing ponds show and there will need to be action taken to ensure that water sources especially, are sustainable and that future generations will have access to clean water.

The contamination and depletion that is happening in the Athabasca River also effects other rivers such as Peace River, Slave River delta in Great Slave Lake which is also linked up to the Mackenzie River.

Although it mainly affects the Athabasca river area, it will in time have a wider effect on Alberta as more water is contaminated and further water resources are depleted.

This does not impact all people equally, as I found the First Nations people are the first to feel the effects of the contamination of their water sources. They are forced to choose between eating fish that are contaminated and are known to be bad for their health and not eating at all.

It is a very sad situation as food is scarce as it is in the North and having one of their main sources of food contaminated is a huge issue, as it is expensive to import food to those areas in the North.

It seems from what I have seen the benefits are all mostly going to those capitalists who have invested their money into extracting the valuable bitumen, and those who work for them as well as the laborer’s who are paid well.

However, at the rate of depletion it will also soon begin to effect bigger cities in Alberta as their water sources are lost and they will need to search for new sources of water.

Tailing pond.
Source:David Dodge, Copyright © 2005 The Pembina Institute.

Water Contamination

             It was found that PAH’s (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) were found in sediments within lakes that are contributing to the oil sands industry and were found up to almost 90 km away from the actual place of operations, showing how far the pollution can appear.

It was found that the PAH’s contamination and other metal contaminations were indeed due to the processes of mining for oil.

During rainy seasons and when the snow melts it was found that much of these contaminates are released into the river, but quite a bit is also retained in soil and vegetation

As pointed out by Peter Hodson a Professor at Queen’s University, “Standardized PAH concentrations increased continuously and significantly from 1867 to 2010 by 2.5 to 23-fold in parallel with increased oil sands production”

Clearly there is good reason to be very concerned over the next few decades as this increase is highly significant and it has been projected there will be a 150% increase in oil sands productions over another decade or so.

Climate change can also influence the availability of water in Alberta because from 1971 to 2003 the temperatures in the Athabasca River has risen by 2 degrees, that means that river flows will become even less than they are now leading to further depletion.

This water sometimes is so contaminated it isn’t renewable, because of that rapid water depletion is occurring this very minute.

The contamination and depletion that is happening in the Athabasca River also affects other rivers such as Peace River, Slave River delta in Great Slave Lake which is also linked up to the Mackenzie River.

This shows how interconnected all of these water sources are and just how vulnerable the areas are as well.

The contamination that is occurring in these waters is equivalent to an oil spill, however a much slower oil spill as leakage occurs over time in small amounts.

Hence why action must be taken by the Alberta government to ensure that water sources are not further contaminated, and water withdrawals are regulated.

Surface Mining and Insitu Effects on Water

 Surface mining and in situ are two very important methods in extracting the bitumen and both of these require the use of huge amounts of water.

About 93% of the oil or bitumen is too deep inside the earth to be mined and because of this a method called in situ is used, by injecting steam really deep inside of the earth in order for it to melt enough so companies can pump it to the surface.

Surface mining is also used though not as commonly as in situ, which is better for getting at oil that are at depths beyond 150 m and surface mining is best only up to a depth of 75 m.

Surface mining as explained by Dr. Sarah Jordaan is, “Removing shallow depth oil sand deposits by truck and shovel and extracting the bitumen with the Clarke hot water extraction process by mixing the oil sand with water warmed using natural gas”

Surface mining also called strip mining really destroys the boreal forests which they simply call overburden to be removed. Destroying a landscape that is a huge natural carbon sink and draining wetlands to make room for their equipment. Approximately 602 km of land has actually been displaced just by surface mining alone, which has created an enormous amount of tailing ponds. These contain very deadly substances that harm not only the land but animals as well and can be seen from space.

Unfortunately, surface mining also has a much higher demand for water for its processes, which again can cause extreme depletion of surrounding wetlands and lakes. Surface mining is approximated at using 3 to 4.5 barrels of fresh water versus in situ which uses 0.5 to 0.9 of fresh water in its operations, however in situ does contaminate groundwater.

The mining processes both release very deadly pollutants approximately 1400 are known pollutants that are discharged from the production of oil sands. For example, for the process of in situ, steam can be heated to 250 degrees Celsius which means that the land can be altered, and toxic substances can be easily leaked into the ground and thus affecting groundwater.

Both these methods of mining for oil, are slowly not only depleting surrounding water sources, but also contaminating the water and ultimately effecting animals and aquatic life.

Tailing Ponds

Very little of the water that is taken from the Athabasca River is returned to the river, about 10% of the water taken is returned and the rest all gets dumped into what are called tailing ponds.

These ponds contain very toxic substances that have been diverted from their operations. So, 90% of the water ends up being put into these ponds full of noxious and deadly substances located on both sides of the Athabasca River.

What is being dumped or tailings include metals, toxic hydrocarbons, as well as pollutants such as PAH’s and naphthenic acids. Highly toxic substances that can easily kill birds that land in it and has. Some other toxic substances can also include hydrocarbons, asphaltenes, benzene, phenois, cresois, phthalates, toluene, lead, mercury, arsenic, nickel, vanadium, chromium and selenium.

There is also the concern over bacteria that produce methane within the ponds which is a greenhouse gas. So, you can see why these tailing ponds are extremely dangerous for wildlife including aquatic life. It is also quite harmful to humans as it can easily leech through dams and dikes.

If at any point these huge tailing ponds full of toxic muck were to rupture, there would be a huge disaster for the entire area. These tailing ponds are enormous and cover a huge range of land as Tony Clarke pointed out,

“If they were drained into Lake Erie today the cumulative tailings would cover the lake bed to a depth of 20 cms”

If the oil production continues at the rate it is going and continues to increase production it’s reported that in about a decade these tailing ponds will cover over 150 km of land, which is a lot of land to be converted into noxious waste.

So, for every barrel of oil that is currently being produced, approximately 1 and half barrels of tailings or toxic chemicals are being dumped into these ponds as well as 6 barrels of sand. These tailing ponds effect both birds and fish through contamination of the rivers and lakes they live in and for the birds who are migrating and happen to land on these tailings.

For example, the disaster that occurred within tailing ponds that killed over 1600 ducks that landed on these toxic tailing ponds. This happened on the Syncrude site in 2008, which not only destroyed an enormous amount of wildlife but impacts the First Nation’s food supply, as the ducks they hunted normally were killed.

Effects on Aquatic Life

The toxicity in the waterways is known to have affected fish such as those found to have tumors or mutations. For example, the pickerel that have become deformed in the Athabasca River have features such as pushed in faces or bulging eyes.

It was also found that the PAH’s level in the Athabasca delta was twice the threshold that is currently known to cause cancers in aquatic life.

This is also a burden on the First Nations people who heavily rely on the fish for food and serving fish that is possibly toxic is a hard decision to make.

The toxicity was found to be much higher downstream from where the oil sands were located rather than upstream, some levels high enough to kill quite a few fish.

The company Suncor admitted to dumping approximately 1600 cubic meters of noxious substances into the Athabasca River just in a single day, so you can imagine the horrendous effects on the fish in that river. As pointed out by Bob Weinhold, “Health Canada’s guidelines for mercury in fish is much higher than that of the US environmental protection agency, and there are no guidelines for important pollutants such as PAHS in sediment that can get into fish and drinking water”

As a result, there can be very adverse impacts on the actual health of fish and the health of those animals and humans who consume these fish. The droughts in the winter can also adversely affect fish, because when the river flow is low and there are still withdrawals of water being made, there is less dissolved oxygen available to fish. With the lessened oxygen supply those fish who are just about to hatch, are affected by a delay in being able to hatch and that in turn effects the spawning.

The contamination has had adverse effects on aquatic life, especially in the Athabasca River and must be dealt with effectively to reverse the contamination as well as the depletion of water.

Provincial Government of Alberta

The provincial government of Alberta has not been able to provide adequate enforcement of regulations surrounding the withdrawals around water and its contaminations. Water rights are given to companies in the order of first come first serve and all of the water within Alberta is regulated by the Water Act of 1999.

None of the water diverted or used under these licenses have costs to them except the licensing cost. Alberta environmental was failing at giving advice and direction to those oil companies when it came to water use. The government of Alberta has said they have been closely monitoring the contamination levels in the water, however according to their 30 years’ worth of data no increase of contamination has occurred, which is absurd.

The Radka Report stated that the government’s actual knowledge of how the oil sands are affecting the environment and its potential future impacts were largely unknown and their data was outdated and incomplete.

There has been evidence that downstream especially, there indeed has been an increase in contaminants which completely contradicts the reports and data the government of Alberta has been keeping.

The Alberta government also has not ensured that these oil companies have any cost to them when it comes to water use, thus resulting in no incentive to reduce their water use. The Alberta government did however in 2003 implement a Water for Life strategy, which intended goal was to protect the quality and quantity of water sources. There were 3 major goals of this strategy,

  • Albertans will be assured their drinking water is safe.
  • Albertans will be assured that the provinces aquatic ecosystems are maintained and protected.
  • The water will be managed effectively to support sustainable economic development.

However, despite this implementation the government didn’t really clarify any water restrictions on oil industries or future licensing changes. If the issue of water use and contamination is to be properly addressed the government must create new policies that will allow accountability on the part of the oil companies cost wise as well as financial incentives.

There needs to be a greater concern for the contamination and depletion of the waters in the surrounding oil sands, as it will continue if not better regulated by the Alberta government and without giving companies the financial incentives they need to reduce their water consumption. If oil companies are indeed given these incentives, they will have the motivation needed to look for new technologies concerning mining that use less water.

The reclamation process cannot begin if this toxic dumping continues and although the Water for Life Strategy implemented by the Alberta government in 2003 was well intended, it’s not enough to ensure the reversal process, as it doesn’t legally bind companies or hold them accountable for the contaminations. The combination of climate change effects and the oil companies’ thirst for oil will lead to further depletion of these water sources.

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