23.06.2015 • Unsustainable development

In Alberta and Downstream, the Heavy Toll of the Oil Sands Industry on Water and the Environment

In Alberta, Canadian and international oil companies, including Shell and Total, develop oil sands deposits at a frantic pace. Despite the current oil price slump, they still hope to triple production by 2030. While there is much talk of its greenhouse gas emissions, the oil sands industry also has heavy, lesser-known impacts on water resources and biodiversity. The consequences of excessive water extraction and pollution are beginning to be felt downstream, perhaps all the way to the Arctic Ocean. Against a backdrop of climate change and melting glaciers, the uncontrolled development of the oil sands in Alberta could affect a large part of the Canadian North. First part of an exclusive report on oil sands and water by Canadian journalist Edward Struzik.

Published on 23 June 2015 , by Edward Struzik

Two hundred kilometres downstream of northern Alberta’s massive oil sands operations, an aboriginal man by the name of Joe Wandering Spirit lives in a single room cabin with a wild house cat and a team of sled dogs that he keeps tied up when he is not hunting, trapping or fishing. Here in the heart of the Peace-Athabasca, one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas, living in a wilderness that is half land and half water is never safe for a seventy-five year old man like him. During the annual spring break up of ice, meandering rivers and streams can back up and abruptly overflow their banks.

Fifty years ago, when construction of the first commercial oil sands operation was just beginning, more than 400 aboriginal people made a modest living in this swampy 3,000 square kilometre ecosystem. Summers in the delta and on Lake Athabasca to the east served up enough fish to supply not only their domestic needs, but also a small commercial fishery. Autumn came with hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks flying south to stage for several days before continuing on with their migration. In winter, there were plenty of moose, caribou and bison to hunt. By the time spring arrived, there were tern, gull, duck, and goose eggs to collect and enough muskrat to fill up a boat in a day. Muskrat and birds’ eggs, in turn, supplied a steady source of food for mink, lynx, coyotes, wolves and other fur-bearing predators.

The ecological significance of the Peace-Athabasca delta is undisputed. In 1922, when the Canadian government created Wood Buffalo, Canada’s largest national park, 80 percent of the delta was included in the boundaries. In 1982, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, designated Wood Buffalo and the Peace Athabasca a United Nations World Heritage Site and a Ramsar Site of International Significance.

“The Global Prize for Unsustainable Development”

As internationally significant a wilderness as it is, the delta is slowly dying. Climate change, hydroelectric dams, pollution, and massive amounts of river water that are being diverted for fracking and for oil sands extraction have so taken their toll on the ecological integrity of this region that Wandering Spirit is now the only person left living there year round. The commercial fishery is dead due, in part, to lesions and deformities that make some of the fish unfit for sale. Trout that used to be caught on this lower part of the Athabasca River have disappeared. So too have most of the caribou. Muskrat populations have declined so badly that the aboriginal people have given up trapping them. Birds are being affected as well. The population of waterfowl such as scaups and scoters have declined by 70 per cent or more since the 1950s. The eggs of Ring-billed Gulls collected in 2012 contained 139 percent more mercury than they did in 2009.

"There is nothing on this planet that compares with the destruction going in this part of the world," said David Schindler, a world-renowned Canadian scientist who has been conducting research in the region for more than 20 years. "If there were a global prize for unsustainable development, the oil sands would be the clear winner."

A Thirsty Industry

In spite of promises by industry and by government to reduce water use in the oil sands, and to restore the wetland landscapes that has been mined to depths of more than 200 metres, the continuing demise of the delta will be inevitable if oil sands companies triple production, as they promise to do by the year 2030. That’s because it requires a tremendous amount of water to separate oil from the sand. For every barrel of oil produced in the mining of bitumen, at least 2.6 barrels of water are withdrawn from the Athabasca River, or from groundwater aquifers to extract the oil. For in situ operations, where steam is used to separate the oil from the sand below and pump the bitumen to the surface, freshwater use is less, but still significant.

This amounts to 170 million cubic metres of water taken annually from the Athabasca River alone. That is approximately half of the total amount of water that the city of Toronto (population 2.5 million) uses in the same period of time. Unlike the city of Toronto, which treats wastewater and returns it to the natural system, oil sands and fracking companies return none of the water they use to the natural cycle. The wastewater is too toxic and therefore subject to a zero discharge policy. Instead, wastewater that is not recycled is injected back into the aquifers, or stored in tailings ponds.

Toxic Man-Made Lakes

These man-made lakes currently cover an area that is three quarters the size of the city of Paris. They are so massive that migrating birds sometimes make the fatal mistake of landing on them.

As the volume of water in the oil sands tailings ponds grow, water in the Athabasca River inevitably declines. Water diverted for current and approved oil sands operations, for example, amounts to 2.5 percent of the natural flow of the Athabasca River. This percentage can be as high as 10 percent in winter, when water volumes in the river are at their lowest.

This is one reason why the flooding that is required to fill the delta’s large shallow lakes has not occurred in any meaningful way since 1997. Following the big flood that occurred that year, 55 percent of the north end of the delta, which is recharged by the Peace River, was covered in water or shallow marshes. By 2014, that figure had fallen to 33 percent. The south end of the delta, which is recharged by the Athabasca River, is in better shape, but it, too, is steadily becoming drier.

Scientists predict that it will get much worse if oil sands production triples to 5.2 million barrels per day by the year 2030. The amount of water diverted from the Athabasca River, he says, could grow to as high as 30 percent of the natural flow by then.

Western Canada Drying Out

The percentage, however, could be even higher if climate change continues to diminish glaciers and snowpack that send massive amounts of meltwater into the Peace and Athabasca River system. Scientists recently reported that British Columbia’s 17,000 glaciers — both in the Rockies and along the Pacific coast — are losing 22 billion cubic meters of water annually, That’s equivalent to refilling a 60,000-seat football stadium 8,300 times. Mountain snowpack and glaciers in Alberta are diminishing as well, so much so that some people in the oil sands industry concede that they may face a water shortage crisis in the future.

The future for the delta looks so grim that the Mikisew Cree Nation recently called on UNESCO to place Wood Buffalo and the Peace Athabasca delta on its list of “World Heritage Site In Danger”. The list is intended to increase international awareness of the threats to a site and to encourage counteractive measures by the governments that oversee them.

“We are already deeply concerned about the impact of industrial activity on our traditional lands within the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Wood Buffalo National Park,” Mikisew Chief Steve Courtoreille wrote in a letter to UNESCO. “Those threats are growing with the proposed Site C dam in British Columbia and with oil sands expansion. We are using every possible means before it is too late to save the land that has supported our people for millennia.”

Wetland Destruction

Declining river water levels, however, are not the only problem the region faces. Before tar sands companies arrived on the scene, the wetlands of northern Alberta comprised at least fifty percent, and possibly as much two-thirds of the boreal landscape in which the oil sands are located. These wetlands south of the delta supported a wide range of plants, including many of western Canada’s wild and rarest orchids; hundreds of species of birds; untold number of insect species; as well as a range of large mammals, including woodland caribou, moose, wolves, and grizzly bears. No one knows how biologically diverse these ecosystems were because inventories and assessments were never conducted before or during construction of the oil sands operations.

What we do know is those wetlands that have been mined by the oil sands industry are no longer filtering water, sequestering carbon and nurturing the complex web of plants and animals they used to support. This is especially important because landscape changes caused by currently approved tar sands mining operations will release 11.4 million to 47.3 million metric tons of carbon, according to a study done by Canadian scientist Suzanne Bayley. These changes, she says, will also reduce the former wetlands’ ability to sequester carbon by as much as 7.2 million metric tons annually.


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Mountain of Liabilities

Joe Wandering Spirit knows better than anyone else the changes that the oil sands have brought to the region. What worries him and other aboriginal people living downstream even more is the possibility that an earthen wall that contains those tailings ponds will collapse some day and send a wall of toxic water downstream.

Wandering Spirit is not alone in thinking this. In 2012, an expert panel commissioned by the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy predicted that this will likely happen. “If such a breach occurred in the winter and tailings liquid were to get into the Athabasca River under the ice,” the panel concluded, “it would be virtually impossible to remediate or clean-up. . . A large spill, such as would occur in a major breach of a tailwater pond dike, could threaten the biological integrity of the lower Athabasca River, the Peace-Athabasca Delta, Lake Athabasca, the Slave River and Delta, Great Slave Lake, the Mackenzie River and Delta, and perhaps also the Beaufort Sea. It would have an unprecedented effect on human society in the Northwest Territories.”

To date, the Canadian and the Alberta governments governments and the oilsands industry have moved very slowly in dealing with the mountain of environmental liabilities that could cost as much as $13 billion in reclamation costs. The Alberta government has also tried to silence John O’Connor, a doctor who has serviced the 900 aboriginal people living downstream of the oil sands for 15 years, after he raised concerns about higher than normal rates of rare cancers and other health problems. Dr. O’Connor merely suggested that more study was needed to determine whether these health problems were related to oil sands pollution.

Dr. O’Connor fought and won a long battle against the government when it tried to have his medical licence revoked. But in May of 2015 he lost his right to treat people in the community when a government health agency told him that his services were no longer required.

Health concerns aside, even the Alberta government and oil sands supporters are beginning to realize that operating under the status quo is no longer acceptable, especially when the U.S. has closed the door on sending Alberta’s bitumen south via the Keystone Pipeline.


New rules put in place in May 2015 limit the amount of tailings that can be accumulated and they compel companies to invest in technology to reduce the amount of wastewater that goes into tailings ponds. They establish thresholds to identify when companies must act to prevent harm to the environment. And they require companies to post financial security to deal with potential remediation issues.

Oil sands critics are skeptical. When similar rules were put in place in 2009, the companies were unable or unwilling to comply. The new rules also rely on technological solutions that don’t exist.

Given all that has happened in the past, a growing number of scientists and economists in Canada and the United States suggest the best way to move forward is for the Canadian and Alberta governments to order a moratorium on future developments of the oil sands.

In a commentary recently published in the scientific journal Nature, scientists Wendy Palen and seven colleagues argue that the drama over tailings ponds and pipelines such as Keystone and the Gateway pipelines obscures a larger problem — what they describe as “a broken policy process”. Both Canada and the United States, they say, treat oil-sands production, water use, transportation, climate and environmental policies as separate issues, assessing each new proposal in isolation. A more coherent approach, they say, evaluates all oil-sands projects in the context of broader, integrated energy and climate strategies, is sorely needed.

“The Canadian oil sands are vast, and production has more than doubled in the past decade to more than 2 million barrels per day,” Palen recently aid in an interview. “The rush to develop this resource has outpaced sound analysis of the impacts on the environment, human health, and the global climate system. Until the cumulative effects are considered in a transparent, public manner, further development should be halted.”

Edward Struzik

Un gardien des Parcs nationaux canadiens contemple la rivière Whirlpool dans les Rocheuses. L’eau de cette rivière alimente la rivière Athabasca River, qui traverse la région des sables bitumineux


Read the second part of this report: Cleaner Oil Sands? Shell and Veolia’s Carmon Creek Project

Photo Credits: Wapisiw Lookout (Suncor Energy CC); Oilsands reclamation site and Syncrude operations (Pembina Institute CC); Aerial view of oil sands tailing ponds (Rainforest Action Network CC); Aerial view (from helicopter) of the Peace Athabasca delta (© Edward Struzik);, Photo of a wood bison (aka buffalo) in the Peace Athabasca Delta (© Edward Struzik); Oil sands (Howl Art Collective CC); Smoking chimneys (Kris Krug CC); Canadian national park warden overlooking the Whirlpool River in the Rocky Mountains. Water from this river spills into the Athabasca River, which flows through the oil sands (© Edward Struzik).

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