Money, energy and water are the three key ingredients that have made it possible to ship a million barrels of oil a day from northern Alberta's oil sands to the United States and other markets. Incredible quantities of those three ingredients have been used so far, and much more will be needed for production to triple in the next 15 years.
Canada is a land of fresh-water lakes and rivers. The Athabasca River is born in the glaciers of Alberta's Jasper National Park and runs 1,538 kms through the oil sands region and eventually to Lake Athabasca in Wood Buffalo National Park. It is one of North America's longest undammed rivers, and one of its most beautiful.
To squeeze oil from millions of tonnes of tar-laden sand requires similar amounts of hot water. After the sand is excavated, the material is crushed and then treated with 40 degree C water and caustic soda to turn it into slurry. It is then pumped, sometimes several kilometres, to an extraction plant.
At the extraction plant, even hotter water is added to the slurry, where it is agitated and the bitumen oil skimmed from the top. Bitumen is much thicker than traditional crude oil, so it must be either mixed with lighter petroleum (either liquid or gas) or chemically split before it can be transported by pipeline for upgrading into synthetic crude oil.
Every cubic metre (1,000 litres) of oil produced requires between 2 to 4.5 cu m of water. A million barrels a day of oil production translates into roughly 2 to 4.5 million barrels of water a day.
Most of this water comes from the Athabasca River. Existing oil sands operations and ones that have been approved have been granted water rights allowing the removal of 349 million cubic metres of water each year for 40 or more years.
Planned oil sands projects will increase the water use to 529 million cubic metres, according to the Pembina Institute's report, "Down to the Last Drop".
By comparison, fresh water usage in Israel is about 50 cubic metres per person per year, while Canada's average is 125 cubic metres.
While that appears to be a lot of water, the oil industry will be taking just three percent of the river's base flow, according to Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
However, those base flow measurements were done many years ago, said Dan Woynillowicz of the Pembina Institute and the report's co-author. Pembina is a Calgary, Alberta-based environmental group.
And the water is not returned to the river because it is contaminated.
If drier conditions prevail, as predicted with climate change, there is a risk of the Athabasca River and some of the area's wetlands drying up in the fall, Woynillowicz said.
Much of Alberta has been suffering from a prolonged drought, and that is unlikely to change in future because of climate change, reports David Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta.
Water levels in Alberta's rivers have already declined 20 to 84 percent in the last 100 years, Schindler's recently published study found. Future droughts will likely be worse and Schindler recommends slowing industrial and population growth to prevent shortages.
Alberta's environment minister, Guy Boutilier, acknowledges the fact that the province has water problems and has urged residents to conserve water.
Oil sands producers reuse water several times and are starting to shift to a new technique called "in situ", also called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD), which uses less water, said Stringham.
More than 90 percent of the tar-laden sand in the vast 140,800-square-kilometre oil sands region is too deep for surface mining. "In situ" mining uses a pair of horizontal drill holes where steam is pumped into the upper hole to melt the tar or bitumen which is then collected in the lower hole and pumped to the surface.
Although more expensive than surface mining, a number of oil companies now have "in situ" operations or others under construction.
Groundwater is the main source of water, but a mix of brackish water and fresh water is often used.
"The technique captures the water and reuses it," said Stringham.
Although less water is used than in surface mining, the in situ process still generates considerable quantities of waste, says Woynillowicz.
The EnCana oil sands company operation at Foster Creek will dispose of 48 million cubic metres of sludge into deep wells and send 260,000 tonnes of waste to landfills in its 20-year operating lifetime, according to the Pembina report.
Such landfills are usually built nearby to minimise transportation costs.
While in situ operations do not tear up huge areas of forest and wetland, they do fragment the forest, says Woynillowicz. "They create a spider's web of roads, pipes, seismic lines, drill pads, and test holes," he explained.
And no one knows what all the ecological impacts of this new technology will be, he said.
"We do know that the process is incredibly energy-intensive and produces an enormous amount of greenhouse gases," Woynillowicz warned.
*This article is the third of a four-part series on the environmental impacts of Canada's massive oil sands mining and processing development, the world's largest industrial project.
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