Main water source for Canada’s oil sands may run dry — study

Main water source for Canada’s oil sands may run dry — study

The Athabasca River supplies Canada’s oil sands producers.

The Athabasca River, which supplies Canada’s oil sands industry, is much more prone to multi-year droughts than modern records show, suggesting that the sector's current level of water use may not be sustainable, a new study shows.

According to a team led by University of Alberta scientist, David Sauchyn, prolonged droughts in the region are expected to happen again, which will have serious implications for oil sands producers that rely on the Athabasca River.

Sauchyn and his colleagues used a scientifically well-established method of using tree rings to estimate water flows going back 900 years. They found the river level has fluctuated much more widely than the last 62 years of records suggest.

“Current and projected surface water allocations from the Athabasca River for oil sands exploitation are based on the untenable assumptions [of short-term, 60-year data],” it says.

Main water source for Canada’s oil sands may run dry — study

Dr. David Sauchyn, University of Regina. (Photo credit:
U of R Photography Department)

The paper also confirms that overall flows in the Athabasca River are declining. The fact was already known, but until now thought to be mainly a consequence melting and shrinking glaciers.

Data from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers shows that the industry currently requires 3.1 barrels of fresh water to produce a barrel of crude from mining and 0.4 barrels of fresh water to produce a barrel of crude from drilling.

The paper, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the second recent study to question assumptions about water use in the region and comes after withdrawal permits from the river were suspended due to low levels over the summer.

It was funded by Environment Canada with the endorsement of Canada’s Oilsands Innovation Alliance, an industry group that seeks to share research.