Water is required for all Fossil Fuel production -- oil sands operations are no different. Maintaining good water quality and ensuring more efficient and limited use of fresh water is one of the most important challenges that must be met in the oil sands sector.
Comprehensive laws and policies, independent and co-operative monitoring efforts by government, industry and stakeholder groups as well as innovations in research and industrial practices are constantly being improved to ensure environmental impacts are mitigated and avoided.
Water UseAll existing and approved oil sands projects withdraw less than one per cent of the average annual flow of the Athabasca River.
Oil sands projects recycle 80 to 95 per cent of water used.
Water use per barrel is comparable to other energy resources; about 2.5 barrels of fresh water per barrel of oil produced is used by mining operations and 0.5 barrels for in situ operations.
Fresh water use by mature oil sands mining operations continues to decrease, despite significant increases in production.
In situ operators use deep saline acquifers as an alternative to fresh water wherever possible.
The Athabasca River Water Management Framework sets mandatory limits on withdrawals that maintains flows at or near natural conditions.
To protect local habitats, the framework puts a weekly cap on the amount of water companies can withdraw according to the fluctuating flow of the river.
To protect the quality of river water, no production water can be returned to the river and is, instead, stored in tailings ponds.
Operators are licensed to release water from drainage of lands to creeks and tributaries in the region in preparation for oil sands mining. There is also one licensed wastewater discharge in the Athabasca River.
These licences are in public approvals, and releases are monitored to ensure there is no signifcant impact on the Athabasca River downstream of the mine sites.
Alberta has monitored water quality in the oil sands region since the early 1970s.
Today, water monitoring has expanded to include staff who monitor, approve and ensure compliance of projects as well as consultants and multi-stakeholder groups that continuously assess water quality.
Alberta Environment monitors in a number of ways:
- continually monitoring the Athabasca River and its tributaries at 11 sites throughout the oil sands region
- auditing the Monitoring Data That Oil Sands Operators Are Legally Required To Provide
- participating in the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program -- more than 100 water quality stations in the region
- evaluating current contaminant load concentrations and comparing to historic conditions
The Athabasca River has always had measurable levels of naturally-ocurring oil sands-derived hydrocarbon compounds, including Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. This is because bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks seeps naturally into the Athabasca River as it cuts through the landscape.
Monitoring stations downstream of mine sites show industrial contribution cannot be detected against historically consistent readings of naturally occurring compounds in the Athabasca River.
Monitoring in the future
Early in 2012, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and Canada’s Environment Minister announced The Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring.
With this plan, the governments are taking unprecedented steps to enhance the oil sands monitoring program for air, land, water and biodiversity. The plan, which will be fully operational by 2015, improves our ability to detect changes in the environment and manage the cumulative impacts of development.
Water monitoring improvements include increased geographic coverage, increased frequency of sampling, more sensitive detection, the inclusion of sediment monitoring, and more integrated aquatic ecosystems monitoring.
More sites will be monitored to increase overall geographic coverage, sampling will be more frequent, and more substances will be monitored – increasing sensitivity and limits of detection for a broad suite of compounds related to oil sands activities.
As the joint plan is implemented, the Government of Alberta and Government of Canada will continue to engage with stakeholders to ensure continued awareness of the process and to ensure that advice is incorporated on an ongoing basis.
Contaminant Load Study
A three-year comprehensive contaminant load study is underway. It is examining the effects of air emissions, land disturbance, drainage and the potential for seepages or spills.
The overall goal is to address the potential impacts of oil sands operations on the transport and accumulation of contaminants in the region's waterways.