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Study: Oil Sands Expansion Coupled with Changing Climate Threaten Athabasca River System

Map of the lower reaches of the Athabasca River. Click to enlarge.

The projected expansion of the oil sands industry will require too much water to sustain the Athabasca River system, especially with the added impact of predicted climate warming, according to a new report published by the University of Alberta and the University of Toronto. The Athabasca river, at 1,400 km, is the third longest undammed river in North America.

Oil sands production uses between two to four barrels of water per barrel of syncrude extracted from the sands, depending upon production method.  Oil sands production already represents the largest consumption of water in the Athabasca River basin.

Alberta’s oil sands (174 billion barrels) are not only the world’s largest capital project but now represent 60 percent of the world’s investable oil reserves. But to produce one million barrels of oil a day, industry requires withdrawals of enough water from the Athabasca River to sustain a city of two million people every year. Despite some recycling, the majority of this water never returns to the river and is pumped into some of the world’s largest man-made dykes containing toxic waste.

Factoring in expansion plans and new licenses for water withdrawal already in place, study authors D.W. Schindler, W.F. Donahue and John P. Thompson conclude that the total water used for oil sands mining and thermal extraction in the Athabasca River basin is expected to be 15-15.6 cms (cubic meters per second) by about 2015.

However, average summer and winter low flows of the Athabasca River have declined for more than 30 years as a result of climate warming and decreased snow. Runoff has decreased by 50% in the 93.7% of the Athabasca Basin that is downstream of the Rocky Mountains. Flows have also declined in the Peace and Slave Rivers. Models based on forecast climate warming for the 21st century predict a further decrease in snowpacks, runoff, and river flow.

Athabasca2 Athabasca3_2
Athabasca summer flows. Click to enlarge. Athabasca winter flows. Click to enlarge.

The Canadian prairies have already undergone a 2-3 °C increase in temperature, mostly since 1970. Future projections for the prairies indicate increases in temperature of about 6°C may occur by the end of the 21st century, if average climate model projections are realized.

Fort McMurray, just south of the major concentration of oil sands production, has already undergone an increase of more than 2 °C between 1945 and 2005, and Fort Chipewyan has increased by more than 3 °C.

The projected 15 to 15.6 cms for oil sands production in the Athabasca Basin represents 8.5 to 9 percent of current median low flows, and 20 to 21 percent of the lowest winter flows recorded to date. If climate continues to warm, runoff continues to decline and winter low flows continue to decrease as suggested ... the water needs of the oil sands could reach a critical proportion of winter low flow. Similarly, if the lower Athabasca River is affected by climate warming as projected for nine of its lowland tributaries, substantial declines in river flow may be expected between April and October as well.

The report concludes that the recently proposed Phase 1 Water Management Framework is inadequate to protect the Athabasca River system.

It does not ensure flooding of side channels and delta lakes that are critical spawning and nursery habitats for fish and other organisms at high flow. Its reliance on past conditions offers little protection for the ecosystem from low oxygen, high contaminant concentrations or reduced winter habitat under winter ice. It also offers no measures for protection of the large Delta wetland ecosystem and its great diversity of plants and animals. It does not account for the effects of climate warming.

To protect water resources and fisheries, and sustain aboriginal lifestyles in the lower Athabasca River and downstream, measures must be taken to reduce consumptive water use, and gain knowledge necessary to produce an effective, protective, science-based water management plan.




"oil sands production uses between 2 to 4 barrels of water for every barrel of syncrude"

I don't understand the problem, what does uses mean. If it gets the water dirty, filter and treat it to make it potible again. If it evaporates (into the atmosphere) it will fall back to the earth in some form or another. You have to work really hard to 'destoy' water.


I don't know how much NG they use per barrel, but this is yet another reason why I wish we would not do this. We are getting down to the desperate measures, because most of the oil is under the control of countries that do not like us much. If we combine supply and demand it might be more balanced. Better fuel economy, live closer to work, telecommute one day a week and find more resources...but not oil sands.


excellent report from Schindler! - one of the world's best water scientists. More question's about oil sands? Check out the Pembina Institute - Oil Sands Watch.
Lots of fact sheets, reports, photos etc

To respond to the water question, look at one of their reports:

"Only 10% of water taken from the Athabasca for oil sands mining returns to the river; the rest is used or diverted to tailings ponds. This is in contrast to
municipal water withdrawals, where most of the water returns to the river after use....
Hot water is used to extract bitumen from the sand; while some of this is recycled, the residual wastewater contains tailings – fine clay particles and residues of bitumen and various pollutants, such as napthenic
acids. About 6 m3 of tailings are created for every 1 m3 of bitumen mined. The tailings pollutants become concentrated in the tailings ponds where the wastewaters are collected, making them toxic to fish and birds. These wastewater dumps already cover an area of 50 km2.
At a minimum it will take decades before the fine clay
particles in tailings ponds settle out and the waters can be reclaimed. Although new technology that produces consolidated or thickened tailings may reduce the volume of fine tailings produced, the remaining fluid fine tailings will still need special management....
No major breakthrough in technologies related to water use in oil sands mining is expected before 2030."


Going on the principle of negawatts, the easiest barrel produced is the one you do not use. In that case, making those 12 mpg SUVs turn into vehicles that get 24 mpg will save us more than the sands can give us over decades. This would completely eliminate the creation of tailings, the waste and pollution of water and the excessive use of precious and finite NG. That would save the sands for a time in the future when technology can eliminate some of these problems.

Paul Dietz

If it evaporates (into the atmosphere) it will fall back to the earth in some form or another.

It will typically not fall in the same river basin, however. The solution in that case is to use 'dry' cooling systems for your facility, at some increase in cost.


Arent there membrane and or microfluidic chip technologies existing now or in developement that could process the tailing ponds?


The best way to process tailings is not to create them in the first place. None of this is necessary, but it is being done because of profit, not because it makes any real sense.


Well of course there are technologies for cleaning the water for re-use, but at what cost? We are already paying $1.30 per Litre up here (that's $5.87 per gal for you yanks)


What types of membrane or microchip processes are we talking about that can be used to treat the tailings ponds? I'd like to know more about what technologies are available.

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