Opinion: Oilsands – A Trade Too Far

By Tony Boschmann –

There’s always a trade-off, something we’re giving up for the benefit of something else.

Google Earth image of Pond 8A, 8B, and water (ground and surface) sampling waypoints in the Athabasca and on the Suncor site.
Photo credit: Google Earth, submitted by Tony Boschmann

To build houses we need to cut down trees. To produce electricity, we need to dam rivers. To drive cars and move stuff around the planet and for 6,000 other essential products like surfboards, diapers, deodorant, lipstick, and Aspirin, we need oil.

For Canadians there’s an added trade-off for the 1.2 million barrels of oil produced each day in the oilsand mines in northeastern Alberta. The single process to liberate this unique oil product from the sand and clay of the oilsands, the Clark hot water process (CHWP), requires a significant volume of fresh water.

From day one in 1967, the demand for fresh water from, and disposal of resulting waste water back into, the Athabasca River (AR), have been operational necessities and are prescribed in water licenses. For example, between 1980-1983 Suncor Energy reported that they used 100 per cent of their fresh water withdrawal limit or 59.8 million m3 to produce nearly 20 million barrels of oil. Said another way, each barrel of oil required >17 barrels of fresh water from the AR. More importantly, over the same years and license, Suncor reported they discharged 50 million m3, or 15 barrels of non-treated process-affected water (PAW) back into the river for every barrel of oil. Their license allowed the 80 per cent return flow of PAW and that’s what they did.

Current oil production from the five oilsand mines is 1.2 million barrels per day. The 18-fold increase is a boon for the economy, but also represents a huge environmental problem if they haven’t resolved the operational water demands for the CHWP.

Although there’s little in the public record indicating a monumental turnaround, it was inferred, as the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) reported in 2018 that the oilsands mines “recycle 80 percent of their waste water from tailings ponds”. They didn’t say how, but one could reasonably assume that the industry reused the water over and over again, rather than dumping the huge increase in toxic fluids into the river.

Was recycle possible from tailings ponds? These lake-sized plateaus of waste mining sand, their oily water contents, and their bird-deterrent explosions were impossible to hide. They were big and obvious and because of their material make up and proximity to the Athabasca River, the question arose: how could these unlined sand behemoths thwart the gravitational flow of water and be the source of 80 percent of the industry’s operational water use?

It was a question that dogged us over the last seven years and drove us to sneak around their tailings facilities collecting water samples and other evidence to verify their recycle and non-leakage claims. We also took boats and Ski-Doos on the river and collected over 200 surface and groundwater samples. We measured the results against clues collected during countless hours searching government, industry, and scientific records. In the end, our exercise yielded numerous interesting clues.

They were recycling from tailings ponds alright, but there was just one problem. Their version of recycling was like tossing raw cardboard back into the forest. All the evidence pointed to waste water draining through the porous geology and back into the river.

Our 200 water samples discovered process-affected groundwater upward flowing through massive 6,000- to 12,000-square-meter discharge vents at the bottom of the AR adjacent to six tailings ponds. While looking inland, we discovered tailings dykes and ponds were built precisely atop geology conducive to rapid and large-scale groundwater drainage. For example, the Wood Creek Sand Channel was 4 km wide and 12 km long and comprised of gravel and sand to a depth of 50 meters. We learned this construction choice and drainage decision was a fundamental engineering principle to avoid catastrophic failure of the fragile sand-constructed dykes. We also learned this strategy was born out of necessity in the late 1990s when the industry wanted to quadruple oil production but had no room left on their water license to withdraw or discharge. At the time it was thought the brief journey through the geology and diffusion into the river was deemed a satisfactory treatment with no adverse effect.

This was not an exercise in PAW containment in the tailings ponds; it was the exact opposite. Every license, government approval, AER directive, tailings definition, engineering decision, and construction choice was about returning as much PAW back to its “proximate source” as safely and efficiently as possible. Fresh water demand and waste water complications of CHWP have not changed from the 1980s. What has changed is their ingenious mimicry of natural ground water flow. Like a never-ending torrential rain cloud permanently parked above every tailings pond, the flow of PAW imitates how rain normally recharges local groundwater at the topographic high. Then, following the natural driving force of gravity through the porous geology, the PAW is discharged at the topographic low into the Athabasca River. There is no web of pipes to transport PAW back for reuse and no expensive chemical or mechanical treatment systems to remove impurities fatal to the CHWP.

It seemed too bizarre to believe, yet more clues leapt from the official pages as we examined how they reported the new numbers. No longer reported was gross withdrawal and return flow. In their stead was a net calculation where they subtracted one from the other to achieve consumed water. (In 1980s terms 17-15=2 consumed barrels of water). Consumed water was the undrained yogurt-like “fluid tailings” trapped in the tailings ponds. The math showed the evidence when in 2012 Suncor reported the same water volumes of fluid tailings and fresh water withdrawal of 26 million m3. There was no accounting of the 300 million m3 of fresh water required to produce 97 million barrels of oil, and most concerning, the 274 million m3 of PAW return flow.

In 2006, a family physician discovered very rare cancers in his patients in the downriver community of Fort Chipewyan. Impartial researchers and traditional land users continually report deformities in wildlife and fish similar to those found near the Exxon Valdez and BP Gulf oil spills. There are numerous indications of adverse environmental and human health effects, which is in direct contrast to the reported findings of a long line of failed regional government and industry funded monitoring programs such as RAMP, JOSM, and AEMERA, which repeatedly state no impacts.

Alberta sold its environmental soul to the oilsands machine. The government relinquished environmental authority to the AER in 2013, an agency funded 100 percent by the oil industry. Even Premier Notley’s initial criticism of the AER’s ability to protect the environment – “You can’t do that job when your overarching mandate is to promote energy development” – belied her ignorance of the oilsands. The federal government wasn’t any better—lest we forget the changes to federal environmental laws, the attack on environmental organizations, and the silencing of federal scientists by Prime Minister Harper. Both governments have knowledge of this unusual waste water strategy – a clear contravention of the Fisheries Act and other legislation – yet refuse to act due to the economic importance.

In the big picture does it matter what Alberta does in its own backyard? If they want to destroy a river and jeopardize downstream communities for profits that’s their choice. But now the bitumen contagion threatens British Columbia. Should this atypical dense hydrocarbon spill, no fleet of boats, army of volunteers, or inventory of oil booms can protect what you value most. After the water trade-offs in the oilsands, do you think there is any more concern for your rivers or coastal waters?

We’re staring down the gun barrel of a hydrocarbon-induced climate crisis and we invest our futures in this. It doesn’t inspire much hope.

For more information or supporting details, please email the author at tony.boschmann@hotmail.ca.

Tony Boschmann has been an environmental investigator for 22 years, is semi-retired, and lives in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

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