Oil sands operators want to use as little water as possible. The more we withdraw, the more we have to treat. And, ultimately, the more we will have to store in tailings ponds at the same time we’re trying to reduce them. Using less water is not just good public relations: it makes sense for the river, and it makes sense for our operations.
Like other rivers, the Athabasca River has seasonal flow rates
(NB: this picture was taken adjacent to our operations)
That said, the public is concerned about the amount of water that oil sands companies are allowed to withdraw from the Lower Athabasca River. The issue has also been discussed for eight years by industry, First Nations, environmental groups and government bodies. Under the direction of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), these discussions have resulted in two successive water management frameworks for the Lower Athabasca River.
Phase I Water Management Framework defined rules (PDF) for water withdrawals during periods of low flow, which generally occur in the winter months.
Phase II Water Management Framework, completed earlier this year, attempted to include an Ecosystem Base Flow (EBF), which defines flow rates at which water withdrawals should cease if there is a significant risk of harm to river biodiversity. There was disagreement, however, about the level at which an EBF should be set. Everyone involved agreed that there should be a flow at which all withdrawals should be stopped. The question was, how low is that flow?
Answering this question is challenging because the levels of low flow being contemplated have never happened since river monitoring began. Moreover, the Lower Athabasca River is a complex ecosystem that has evolved over thousands of years which naturally experiences significant variations in flow. It also has a unique chemistry due to natural bitumen outcrops on its banks.
The Athabasca already has one of the lowest allocations or licensed withdrawals levels – just 4.3% - of all major rivers in Alberta. By comparison, 28% of North Saskatchewan’s flow is allocated, while more than 66% of both the Oldman and Bow rivers are licensed for withdrawals.
Millions of dollars have been invested by CEMA and others in studying the Athabasca to try and predict what could happen at low flows. This has included modeling low flows, seeking out traditional knowledge from Aboriginals in the region, involving world-class experts, and extensive sampling and monitoring.
We do know that water withdrawals have been happening since the late 1960s with no apparent impacts. We don’t know if additional withdrawals will change that.
The Phase II Water Management Framework includes a low flow volume at which most withdrawals by oil sands operators will be essentially zero. Only the two earliest oil sands operators, Suncor and Syncrude, will be allowed to withdraw as their plants, the oldest in the industry, are not currently designed to function without fresh water intake, especially in the winter.
These withdrawals have been occurring for over 35 years. Nonetheless Suncor and Syncrude have voluntarily reduced their withdrawals to half their maximum permitted allocation. Suncor has also committed to reducing fresh water consumption by 12% by 2015 (compared to base year 2007). As a result our current water withdrawals are now at 1998 levels despite nearly tripling production.
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