Click each heading for more detailed information.
Oilsands operations return almost none of the water they use to the natural cycle.1
- Oilsands mining operations are subject to a zero-discharge policy because of the toxins in the waste water. Waste water that is not recycled is stored in tailings lakes.2,3
- Waste water from in-situ processes is often re-injected deep underground.4,5
Oilsands operators used approximately 170 million cubic meters of water in 2011, equivalent to the residential water use of 1.7 million Canadians.6
- Mining requires a net volume of two and four barrels of freshwater to extract and upgrade one barrel of bitumen.7
- In situ techniques require approximately 0.8 to 1.7 barrels of water to extract and upgrade a barrel of oil. 8
- Annual oilsands water consumption for 2011:9
- Mining operations consumed 138 million cubic metres
- In situ operations consumed 28 million cubic metres
- Upgrader operations consumed 4 million cubic metres
- These volumes are in addition to the water which is recycled through the processes. Mining operations, for instance, use between 7.5 and 12 barrels of water to produce each barrel of bitumen in surface mined oil sands operations, of which 40-70% is recycled back into the extraction process. 10,11
The ecosystem of the Athabasca River, which flows into one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas, is at risk from current water withdrawals.
- The majority of the water used for mining is taken from the Athabasca River.12
- According to the awarded water licenses, current and proposed projects could withdraw more than 15% of the Athabasca River’s water flow during its lowest flow periods.13
- Water withdrawals during winter low-flow periods risk reducing the availability of fish habitat and could reduce the health of the river’s ecosystem.14,15 This is especially a risk for the Lower Athabasca River as the average discharge from the river's mouth into Lake Athabasca during low-flow periods was 30% less in 1996-2006 than it was in 1966-1976.16
- Flow downstream of Fort McMurray is predicted to decrease by 30 per cent by 2050, due to the combined impacts of climate change and industrial water withdrawals.17
The cumulative impacts of oilsands development on water are largely unknown due to inadequate monitoring.
- Numerous independent reports published in the last several years emphasize the need for improved water monitoring systems at both the provincial and federal level to ensure sustained functioning of the aquatic ecosystem.18, 19, 20, 21
- In 2011, Environment Canada and a team of independent experts concluded that the current water monitoring system for the Athabasca region “did not deliver data of sufficient quantity or quality to detect or quantify the effects of oilsands development.”22
- Independent research suggests concentrations of dissolved polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC) are higher downstream of oilsands development, in comparison to upstream, in tributaries to the Athabasca. This trend is more pronounced in the summer than in the winter.23
- Independent research has also found that sediment of lakes in the oilsands region (including one lake approximately 90 kilometres from the major development area) contain between 2.5 and 23 times higher concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) than they did 50 years ago, before the industrial development of the oilsands began.24
updated April 2013
- 1. Mary Griffiths, Amy Taylor and Dan Woynillowicz, Troubled Waters, Troubling Trends: Technology and Policy Options to Reduce Water Use in Oil and Oilsands Development in Alberta (The Pembina Institute, 2006), 85.
- 2. Royal Society of Canada, Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry (2010) (accessed January 18, 2013).
- 3. Mary Griffiths, Amy Taylor and Dan Woynillowicz, Troubled Waters, Troubling Trends, 33.
- 4. Royal Society of Canada, Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry.
- 5. Mary Griffiths, Amy Taylor and Dan Woynillowicz, Troubled Waters, Troubling Trends, 89.
- 6. Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development, “Oil Sands Water Use,” Oil Sands Information Portal (accessed January 18, 2013). The Canadian residential average water consumption is 274 litres per person per day (based on 2009 data). See Environment Canada, “2011 Municipal Water Use Report: Municipal Water Use 2009 Statistics” (accessed January 18, 2013).
- 7. Government of Alberta, “Alberta’s Oil Sands: Water” (2012) (accessed January 18, 2013). Water use/barrel of bitumen and synthetic crude oil (SCO) varies greatly by company. This is because as the mines mature, they provide a greater proportion of the required extraction process water from rainfall and runoff on the larger disturbed area of the mine site. There is also increased water available from tailings lakes — as tailings mature, more tailings water becomes available for use in the bitumen extraction process. Based on data available from the Oil Sands Information Portal, water use for mining companies in 2011 was as follows: Suncor Base Operations (Millennium Mine, Steepbank Mine, and Upgraders 1 and 2) used 1.7 bbl fresh water per bbl SCO; Shell Albian Sands Muskeg River Mine and Jackpine Mine used 2.0 and 3.2 bbl fresh water per bbl bitumen, respectively; Syncrude Aurora North Mine used 0.7 bbl freshwater per bbl bitumen; Sycrude Mildred Lake Mine used 2.6 bbl fresh water per bbl SCO; and CNRL Horizon Mine used 4.5 bbl fresh water per bbl SCO.
- 8. Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development, “Oil Sands Water Use,” Oil Sands Information Portal (accessed January 18, 2013).
- 9. Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development, “Oil Sands Water Use,” Oil Sands Information Portal (accessed January 18, 2013).
- 10. R. J. Mikula, V. A. Munoz and O. Omotoso, Water Use in Bitumen Production: Tailings Management in Surface Mined Oilsands.
- 11. Alberta Energy, “Facts and Statistics: Water Use,” 2012 (accessed Januarly 18, 2013).
- 12. Alberta Environment, “Water Diversion by Oilsands Mining Projects in 2007,” data received September 2008.
- 13. Imperial Oil Limited, Imperial Kearl Oilsands Mine Application (no. 1408771 & 1414891, volume 4), (2005), 3-31.
- 14. Royal Society of Canada, Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry.
- 15. Mary Griffiths, Amy Taylor and Dan Woynillowicz, Troubled Waters, Troubling Trends, 69.
- 16. A. J. Squires, C. Westbrook, and M. G. Dube, “An approach for assessing cumulative effects in a model river, the Athabasca River basin” in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 6 (1): 119–134. (accessed February 14, 2011).
- 17. J. Bruce, “Oil and Water – Will they mix in a changing climate? The Athabasca River story,” in Implications of a 2ᵒC Global Temperature Rise on Canada’s Water Resources (Sage Centre, 2006).
- 18. Water Monitoring Data Review Committee, Evaluation of Four Reports on Contamination of the Athabasca River System by Oilsands Operations, report to the Government of Alberta (2011).
- 19. Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, “2010 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development” (accessed February 14, 2011).
- 20. Oilsands Advisory Panel, “A Foundation for the Future: Building an Environmental Monitoring System for the Oil Sands” (accessed February 14, 2011).
- 21. Royal Society of Canada, Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry.
- 22. Environment Canada, Lower Athabasca Water Quality Monitoring Program. PHASE 1 Athabasca River Mainstem and Major Tributaries (2011), 5.
- 23. Erin N. Kelly, Jeffrey W. Short, David W. Schindler, Peter V. Hodson, Mingsheng Ma, Alvin K. Kwan and Barbra L. Fortin, "Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 107 (2009) (accessed March 21, 2011)
- 24. Joshua Kurek, Jane L. Kirk, Derek C. G. Muir, Xiaowa Wang, Marlene S. Evans, and John P. Smol. “Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, published online before print on January 7, 2013 (201217675).