Oil and Water Do Mix

Contributed to The Chronicle Herald
Greg Stringham
Vice President of Oil Sands
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
May 12, 2009

It takes water to produce oil from Canada's oil sands. It also takes water to produce a cup of coffee, to make a pair of jeans, and to create the golf courses, back yards, and other green spaces that add to the quality of life we all enjoy.

Before the oil and gas industry's most extreme critics work up a head of steam, let's be clear that the comparison is by no means intended to trivialize the importance of water conservation. On the contrary, Canada's oil and gas industry believes that environmental performance including responsible water use, economic growth, and energy security are necessary, achievable and need not be mutually exclusive.

The industry can back that position with measurable performance improvements and technological advances, including water recycling rates that across the oil sands industry are now 85 per cent or better.

These and many more numbers big and small will flow freely over the next several days as the federal Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development convenes this week in Alberta to study oil sands and water resources. Most of the information - on all sides of the issue - will be timely and important to the larger debate. Our industry welcomes an open, robust, balanced discussion.

It's also important to focus on the facts.

In some cases in situ oil sands producers are recycling upwards of 90 per cent of water used in production. Over 80% of the oil sands resource is in situ (deep below ground), meaning it will be recovered through wells. Some projects, such as Devon's Jackfish project use 100% saline water.

Context and perspective are important, even as the industry drives towards improved environmental performance. For example, the total amount of water currently allocated to the oil and gas sector from the Athabasca River is 2.2 per cent of the river's natural flow. The total amount used in 2007 was 1 per cent. (2008 figures are not yet available). And the maximum amount of water that could be used, if all projects currently being considered were to be developed, is less than three per cent.

What about what goes into the Athabasca? Or more to the point, what does not go into the river? Two issues will be raised at this week's hearings: River water quality and the impact of tailings ponds.

As part of an industry commitment to compliance and continuous improvement, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP), an industry-funded, multi-stakeholder environmental monitoring program, was initiated in 1997. RAMP integrates aquatic monitoring activities across different components of the aquatic environment, different geographic locations, and Athabasca oil sands and other developments in the Athabasca oil sands region, so that long-term trends, regional issues and potential cumulative effects related to oil sands and other developments can be identified and addressed. For more than a decade, detailed measurements have been taken both upstream and downstream of oil sands developments. Monitoring of the Athabasca River, upstream and downstream of development, has shown no impacts associated with oil sands development.

That does not mean there are no naturally occurring hydrocarbons in the river. Bitumen from exposed oil sands along the river banks into the Athabasca River as it cuts its way thought the landscape. As a result, natural water quality includes measureable hydrocarbon compounds. But ongoing monitoring - coupled with one of the strongest regulatory regimes in the world - ensures close oversight of water resources.

Alberta Environment prohibits the release of any water into the Athabasca River that does not meet water quality requirements. The regulatory process is transparent, and the industry is obligated to meet or exceed all government standards. In short, the rules are tough, and getting tougher.

The water used in oil sands mining projects is recycled using tailings ponds where the fine clays settle slowly from the water. Extensive research on tailings has been conducted since the 1960s and the industry continues to develop better technologies and approaches to tailings management. Several of the new technologies include:

  • Mixing tailings with gypsum, lime, polymers or CO2 which collapses the structure of the clays and releases the water, thereby speeding up the reclamation cycle.
  • Mechanical tailings thickeners or centrifuges used to reduce the water content of the fine tailings.
  • Dry tailings processing.

Continuous technological development enables the industry to increase the amount of water recycled, reduce the amount of water used, and reduce the amount of water in tailings ponds. In turn this will accelerate the progressive reclamation of the mines and tailings ponds.


More than 90 per cent of the injection steam
required to run Petro-Canada's MacKay River in
situ facility is recycled continuously.

Canada's oil sands can and are being developed in parallel with continuous improvement of environmental performance and technological improvements on several fronts. Balancing energy and environment is not an abstract idea. Getting the balance right has a real and immediate impact on hundreds of thousands of Canadians across the country.

The oil sands industry is a key component of the oil and gas industry which affects the livelihoods of over 500,000 Canadians across the country, and in 2008 generated $30 billion in royalty and tax revenues that support health care, education and social services across Canada.

The industry recognizes that it must continually uphold and improve environmental performance as development proceeds. The cornerstones of a triple-E approach to responsible resource development - energy, environment and economy - are not and cannot be mutually exclusive.

Greg Stringham is Vice-President, Oil sands and Markets, with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.