“Back in the 1980’s, it was common to use a lot of fresh water to produce oil from the oil sands.
Today, we conserve fresh water by sourcing brackish water – the unusable water far below the fresh water table.
By 2013, fresh water will account for less than 3% of all water used at our Primrose facility here in northeastern Alberta.
Finding innovative ways to limit environmental impacts is key to meeting our energy needs responsibly. Get the real story at capp.ca/oilsands
Nothing could be farther from the truth. According to Mr. Kevin Stringer (Director General, Petroleum Resources Branch, Department of Natural Resources), in testimony before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development,
“It’s really bitumen. Bitumen is a molasses-like viscous oil that will not flow unless it’s heated and diluted with lighter carbons. It can be blended with diluents and shipped to refineries, or it can be upgraded into a synthetic crude oil. But it’s basically in the ground, and has the consistency of a hockey puck….”
Mr. Stringer went on to say, “One to four barrels of water is needed to produce one barrel of bitumen.” The water is essential to the process because of the nature of the tar sands themselves.
Alberta Energy describes the material as “…a naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay or other minerals, water and bitumen, which is a heavy and extremely viscous oil that must be treated before it can be used by refineries to produce usable fuels such as gasoline and diesel. Bitumen is so viscous that at room temperature it acts much like cold molasses.”
The bitumen itself is extracted either by the well-known mega strip-mining operations, which have devastated the local landscape, and need huge tailings ponds to collect the polluted waste water that results. The other method of extracting the bitumen, the so-called in situ method, relies on injecting very hot, high-pressure steam into the layer of tar sand to melt the bitumen so it can be extracted by drilling, and then upgraded.
This method of extraction is not quite so water intensive, as the steam melts the bitumen directly, allowing it to flow, (a process called Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage, or SAGD), whereas the mined bitumen/sand/clay material has to be processed in what is, in effect, a giant washing machine. In situ processing takes its water from deep, saltwater aquifers – water that would be otherwise useless; as a bonus, there is no toxic wastewater to discharge into tailings ponds, and it is far less intrusive on the surface environment than strip-mining. Just as the CNRL ad depicts, this is a win-win situation, especially as the area where drilling is feasible covers about the same area as Vancouver Island.
Hazards of Water Extraction
During the Parliamentary Committee Hearings, Justin Trudeau, MP, asked a number of telling questions. One such question he directed at Dr. Kim Kasperski, Manager of Water Management at the federal Department of Natural Resources (March 5, 2009). “Do we know what effect injecting solvents and brackish water into groundwater is going to have in the long term? Are there any long-term studies on how aquifers are affected by that?”
Dr. Kasperski’s answer was equally to the point: “That’s a critical question. It depends on the hydro-geochemists mapping those aquifers. That’s not something that I know. Alberta Geological Survey and Geological Survey of Canada would be better able to speak to that.”
In other words, we know nothing of the long-term hazards of such an endeavour, and a web search found nothing more revealing than that the Geological Survey of Canada is now a part of Natural Resources Canada.
Herein lies a less obvious, potentially larger problem, with a more immediate impact. Boiling water to create steam leaves behind whatever solids were previously dissolved in the water, in this case, salt. Think of the layer of calcium often found in a tea kettle. The injected steam, therefore, is pure distilled water, or a mixture of pure water and organic solvents, and what remains from the boiling is a huge amount of impure salt.
What happens to all that salt? The answer is surprisingly easy, although there is no mention of it in CNRL’s ad: it is simply trucked to a landfill site and dumped. According to the Alberta Government, the in situ process requires 2 to 4.5 barrels of water per barrel of bitumen, which adds up to many tons of salt.
Salt (and everything else withdrawn from the aquifer) is very water-soluble, so unless it is properly contained, away from any source of water, there is the risk that it may contaminate existing fresh water aquifers, lakes and rivers.
The CNRL ad also fails to mention that water, whether pumped from the Athabasca River or from a well, once it enters tar sand production, is lost to the ecosystem. Generally accepted industry goals point to a daily tar sands production of 4 million barrels of synthetic crude daily. Even if a target of two barrels of fresh (or saline) water per barrel of oil can be achieved, this is a huge amount of water to be withdrawn from the river and aquifer. (One barrel equals 42 gallons equals 190 litres).
Recent “Water Spills”
“Environmental-impact assessments in the oilsands area are a joke – very short studies that are haphazardly done. This must change or more events like this are sure to follow.”
The event in question is the revelation that salt-water and the highly poisonous gas, hydrogen sulphide (H2S), has been leaking into a 400 metre square mine pit for the past two months.
Officials have said the situation is not a danger to the environment or public at this point, although Shell does not know how to stop the leak, nor how to dispose of the brackish water.
According to Dr. Schindler, disposal will not be easy. “Sodium chloride is highly soluble. Distillation, reverse osmosis and other techniques normally associated with desalinization plants are the only feasible solutions for large volumes of water.”
Maybe CNRL and Shell might organise a bucket brigade between the two sites, keeping the pit empty and at the same time satisfying CNRL’s water needs.
Another problem not mentioned in the CNRL ad is the huge amount of natural gas needed to boil all this water into high-pressure steam. Justin Trudeau MP, while questioning Mr. Kevin Stringer during the Parliamentary Committee Session, attempted to get a figure for the amount of natural gas burned to extract a barrel of tar sands bitumen. Mr. Stringer did not have the data to give an accurate answer, but he said that it was about 6% of western Canada’s total natural gas production.
The third major problem that CAPP would prefer us not to talk about is what happens to all the water drilled from the aquifers. As these aquifers are drained, they need to replenish, or they dry up. This alone could put pressure on water supplies far removed from the Fort McMurray region, and this is only for the extraction of the bitumen. Another risk is that an overexploited aquifer may simply subside, or collapse upon itself, rendering future water extraction in the area difficult.
Perhaps CAPP and CNRL might want to rethink this ad, along with some of their others.
Read this Edmonton Journal article for a more detailed story about this “water spill.”