Alberta on Path to Water Scarcity and Contamination

Federal Government Missing in Action on Oilsands Water Management

Calgary, Alberta -- Today, Ecojustice and the Pembina Institute will present evidence that oilsands development threatens Alberta's freshwater at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development Hearings, also known as the Oil and Water Hearings. The groups will show that the federal government's mismanagement of oilsands development has failed to protect the environment.

"The federal government has been missing in action in terms of regulating the oilsands industry, and its absence has come at the expense of the environment and the long-term interests of Canadians," says Simon Dyer, Oilsands Program Director at the Pembina Institute. "Their failure to act has created severe risks, ranging from contamination by leaking tailings lakes to the collapse of fisheries. Ironically, this unchecked development even threatens the future of the oilsands mining industry itself."

The evidence presented by Ecojustice (formerly Sierra Legal Defence Fund) and the Pembina Institute will demonstrate a pattern of neglect related to oilsands development and its impacts on water.

The government failures include

  • failing to protect the water flows of the Athabasca River
  • failing to address the issue of leaking toxic tailings lakes, which have already grown to cover an area greater than the City of Vancouver
  • failing to provide adequate oversight and involvement in environmental monitoring and management for oilsands development

The Pembina Institute and Ecojustice call on the federal government to take immediate measures to protect Alberta from water contamination, scarcity and the loss of wetlands. According to Ecojustice counsel Karin Buss, "It is not appropriate for the Government of Canada to rely on Alberta officials to protect such a precious resource as water, especially when the province has shown little interest in proactively managing the impacts of oilsands development to date."

"The federal government has the power and responsibility to protect fish habitat and ensure that sufficient water flows in the Athabasca River are maintained," says Buss. "The federal government should be taking a lead role instead of deferring to Alberta and allowing these environmental threats to increase."

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For more information contact:

Simon Dyer
Oilsands Program Director
The Pembina Institute
Cell: 403-322-3937

Karin Buss
Tel: 780-412-2704

Pembina Institute submissions:

Ecojustice submission:


Alberta Oilsands Development and Impacts on Water

  • 529 million cubic meters of water per year is expected to be withdrawn from the Athabasca River by existing and planned oilsands projects.
  • 25 per cent of the Athabasca River's flow will be withdrawn if all licensed lower Athabasca River users withdraw during low-flow period.
  • Oilsands operators currently obtain their water for free.
  • 370 million cubic meters of freshwater from the Athabasca River was licensed for use in oilsands production in 2006.
  • Less than 10% of the freshwater withdrawn from the river is returned.
  • 2 to 4.5 barrels of water are used to produce 1 barrel of bitumen.
  • 1.5 barrels of mature fine tailings are produced for every barrel of bitumen.
  • 720 million cubic meters of fine tailings currently exist in long-term containment.
  • There is no commercially demonstrated method to reclaim mature fine tailings.
  • Tailings ponds contain the following substances that are potentially toxic to people in the environment: naphthenic acids, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals.
  • The Athabasca River is a major tributary of the Mackenzie River Basin. Decreasing flows have the potential to affect the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan.

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