Rising water demands in Tar Sands threaten famous Canadian Heritage River: Alberta’s Clearwater River
Tar sands water demand threatens pristine Canadian Heritage River: The Clearwater River
(TORONTO) -- Opti-Nexen, one of the largest steam plant operators in the oil sands, wants to withdraw 17,000 cubic meters of water a day from Alberta's Clearwater River. The Clearwater is a pristine, culturally significant wilderness river near Fort McMurray. The Clearwater received "Heritage River" designation in recognition of the its unspoiled beauty and its historical importance as a connecting link between the Churchill and Mackenzie river systems in the fur trade era.
Opti-Nexen's daily water taking would be roughly equal to a city of 50,000 people. In contrast to a city, Opti-Nexen would not return the water to the Clearwater after using it. Opti-Nexen’s request is unprecedented. Most oil sands operators that melt deep deposits of bitumen with steam get their water from salt or freshwater aquifers. No water for steam plants is currently removed from the Clearwater or nearby Athabasca rivers.
"The Canadian Heritage Rivers Board designated the Clearwater River one of Canada's leading rivers because it is remote and pristine and a precious part of Canadian history. If Opti-Nexen is allowed to start taking water from this river, what does that say about our priorities?" asks Ruth Kleinbub, a long-time advocate for the Clearwater River.
This pristine river originates in Saskatchewan and runs into Alberta where it empties into the Athabasca River at Fort McMurray. It was designated a Heritage River first by Saskatchewan in 1987 and later by Alberta in 2004. Historically, the Clearwater River was at the centre of the 18th century fur trade and was part of the voyageur route to the Arctic. The explorers Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie and Sir John Franklin canoed this legendary river. It is one of the few western rivers that remain as the voyageurs and Cree and Beaver nations once paddled it.
The request for Clearwater River water is the result of Opti-Nexen's failure to meet water-use targets. The company initially predicted that it would need two barrels of steam to produce one barrel of bitumen. In actual practice, it requires six barrels. Opti-Nexen is now scrambling to find a new source of water for its upgrader, and it hopes to draw upon the Clearwater River.
"We are deeply concerned about the example this water taking could set for the rest of the country. Canada's environmental laws are supposed to protect the environmental and cultural integrity of the nation's waterways. If the Clearwater River water taking is approved without public consultation and without independent scientific review, then any Canadian river is vulnerable. If a river like the Clearwater does not get the best protection possible, then there is no hope at all for less pristine areas," says Mark Mattson, an environmental lawyer and full-time Waterkeeper based in Toronto.
Opti-Nexen confirmed earlier this week that it plans to sell some of its heavy oil properties and will focus on projects like the Opti-Nexen Long Lake project. Long Lake is just one of many steam plants facing water challenges in Alberta. The total area under lease for oil development in Alberta's north is more than 80,000 square kilometres.
Ruth Kleinbub: long-time resident who fought for the river’s protection (Fort McMurray): 780-791-2736
Mark Mattson: environmental lawyer and co-founder of several Waterkeeper organizations, including Lake Ontario Waterkeeper (Toronto): 416-861-1237
Backgrounder: Oil Sands Steam Plant Industry & the Clearwater River
Opti-Nexen is one of the largest steam plant operators in the oil sands (also known as SAGD: Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage).
Opti-Nexen wants to withdraw 17,000 cubic meters of water a day the Clearwater River. One cubic meter of water is equal to 1,000 liters. The average Canadian uses 343 liters a day. Therefore Opti-Nexen wants to remove enough water from a protected Canadian Heritage River to sustain nearly 50,000 Canadian households every day.
The Clearwater River is a pristine river. It originates in Saskatchewan and runs into Alberta where it empties into the Athabasca River at Fort McMurray. It was designated a Heritage River first by Saskatchewan in 1987 and by Alberta in 2004 (more information).
Historically, the Clearwater River was at the centre of the 18th century fur trade and was part of the voyageur route to the Arctic (more information). The explorers Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie and Sir John Franklin canoed this legendary river. It is one of the few western rivers that remain as the voyageurs, and Cree and Beaver nations once paddled it (more information).
Opti-Nexen’s request is without precedent. According to the National Roundtable On the Environment most steam plants now draw their water from salty or freshwater aquifers. But no water for steam plants is now removed from the Athabasca or Clearwater rivers (more information).
Opit-Nexen’s troubled Long Lake project, like the majority of industry’s steam plants, has failed to meet its water targets and has now doubled its water demand. It has also failed to achieve bitumen production goals. The company initially predicted that it would need two barrels of steam to produce just one barrel of bitumen. Now it requires six barrels (more information).
According to its 2008 Sustainability Report, fresh water withdrawals increased from 735,000 cubic meters in 2007 to 1,890,000 cubic meters in 2008 due to increases in bitumen production (more information). Statoil has also expressed concerns about “water management challenges” and shortages for its SAGD operation (additional information as referenced by: John Kus, Extra Heavy Oil in Canada, TEKNA Conference, Stavanger, Norway, January 23, 2008).
A 2009 report, commissioned by JOGMEC (Japan Oil Gas and Metals National Corporation) on the problems encountered by steam plants, notes that all projects, with the exception of two companies, have exceeded original water estimates or steam to oil ratios by often-extreme volumes. Some companies have used as much as 14 barrels of steam to produce one barrel of bitumen (more information).
In an exhaustive 2009 report on groundwater, the Council of Canadian Academies concluded that steam plants (also known as in situ) could ultimately use more water than mining operations:
Since more than four-fifths of the total bitumen reserves in Alberta are accessible only by in situ methods, the demand for groundwater for in situ production could be as great as or greater than the demand for surface water for oil-sands mining, unless new extraction processes are adopted. (p. 210)
View background information as a PDF file.