Oilsands | Pembina Institute

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Water Impacts

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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 2.4 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
  • Daily freshwater use in 2022 is projected to be 4,861,389 barrels (772,900 cubic metres). This is equivalent to filling 4.8 million bathtubs or 309 Olympic swimming pools with freshwater every day.12
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.13
  • 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.14
  • Water withdrawals during winter low-flow periods risk reducing the availability of fish habitat and could reduce the health of the river’s ecosystem.15,16 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 1966-1976.17
  • 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.18
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.19, 20, 21, 22
  • 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.”23
  • 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.24
  • 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.25
updated April 2013



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