FORT MCMURRAY, AB, July 24 /CNW Telbec/ - Braving toxic fumes and the
same toxic tailings waste that earlier this year killed 500 ducks, Greenpeace
activists entered Syncrude's Aurora North tar sands operation early this
morning and blocked a pipe into the two-kilometre wide tailings pond.
    Shortly after 11:00 a.m today, 11 Greenpeace activists blocked the pipe
to prevent further toxic contamination of Alberta's environment. The activists
capped the opening of the pipe, locking a large device in place while several
other activists erected a triangular banner over another pipe depicting a
skull and crossbones which hung above the pipe's opening, giving the illusion
of toxic water gushing from the "mouth" of the skull. Several other activists
deployed a massive banner along the bank of the tailings pond, reading
"World's Dirtiest Oil: Stop the Tar Sands."
    "Big oil companies are pillaging Alberta's natural resources, robbing
freshwater from the Athabasca River to make giant lakes of toxic sludge that
are killing wildlife and poisoning local communities," said Mike Hudema, a tar
sands campaigner with Greenpeace. "Today we brought our message to the
perpetrators of this environmental crime - it's time to put the brakes to the
tar sands."
    The tar sands are the largest user of ground water in Alberta. Current
projects are licensed to remove more than 450 million cubic metres of water
from the Athabasca River each year, equivalent to about two and a half times
the water the City of Calgary uses annually. Additionally, elevated levels of
rare cancers and auto-immune diseases have been plaguing and killing members
of downstream communities like Fort Chipewyan, diseases which have been linked
to the industrial pollution from the tar sands.
    "For dozens of Alberta communities, the Athabasca River is their lifeline
and when it is threatened, the health and the way of life of those communities
is put at risk," said Greenpeace Tar Sands Campaigner Heather
Milton-Lightening. "Our activists feel that the risk these communities face
daily is far more significant than the risk we took today. If the government
refuses to stand up for their rights, we will."
    Greenpeace is calling for no new approvals on tar sands projects as a
first step; the introduction of legislation to ensure that no new tailings
ponds are built or expanded; that all existing ponds be cleaned up and fully
reclaimed; and that stiffer penalties be implemented for oil companies that
fail to meet imposed environmental regulations. In March of this year,
500 ducks landed on the very same Syncrude tailings pond, despite clear
environmental regulations that required Syncrude to have appropriate wildlife
deterrents in place.

    Note to editors: Greenpeace climate coordinator Dave Martin is available
    for comment from inside the operation. He can be reached at
    (416) 627-5004.

    High-resolution photos and HD video will be available at

For further information: Jessica Wilson, Media and Public Relations
Officer, (778) 228-5404; Mike Hudema, Tar Sands Campaigner, (780) 504-5601;
Heather Milton-Lightening, Tar Sands Campaigner, (780) 504-5567

An interesting and often unapproached ally… the business sector…

Would anyone be interested in a “No New Tarsands EVER” business challenge in Saskatchewan?


Also, I noticed there aren’t really any pictures on this page… so here’s some from our friends in alberta (from aforementioned site) as well as the Regina Fossil Fools day Rally (April 1, 2008)

T. Boone Pickens, 80 year old Texas oil tycoon is building the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas panhandle. The cost is $10 billion, plus he will spend $2 billion on transmission lines. At 4000 megawatts, it will serve 1.3 million homes.

Don’t mess with Texas Wind.

Please contact Premier Wall and Ministers Chevaldayoff and Heppner and tell them we want a REAL debate on energy policy. Wind power test sites, incentives for solar such as in Ontario, one desk, efficient net metering services, passive solar subdivisions, building codes to R-2000 standard, re-instate the Office of Energy Conservation and make it an active, major force, import hydro from Manitoba for baseload power if needed after ENERGY CONSERVATION. This would make heat pumps more environmentally friendly. Make over Sask Power into a power to the people force- decentralized as much as possible- rather than a monolithic cash cow. Educate the public and create imaginative incentives. Just a few ideas.
We do not need nuclear power. It is an expensive and dangerous way to boil water. Temperatures reach 6000 degrees F. and require huge amounts of water to cool, releasing carcinogenic tritium into our water supplies. It will cost Britain 73 Billion Pounds to decommission their old reactors. The life span of a company is much shorter than the the lifespan of radioactive materials. WE will be left holding the bag. Ask yourself how much insurance nuclear plants can get from the private sector- should tell us it’s a bad deal.
Tarsands- WE do not need it. 80% of any oil must go to the U.S. by the proportionality clause of NAFTA. There is only an 8-9 year supply of natural gas in Western Canada- which once again we have to send to the U.S. under NAFTA plus use huge amounts of it to steam out the dirty oil for them. WOULD IT NOT MAKE MORE SENSE TO RESERVE THE GREATER PORTION OF GAS TO HEAT OUR HOMES? The major profits will go elsewhere and will will be left with the mess as usual.
Air, water and soil- all essential to life. Money- you cannot breathe it, drink it or eat it. Do we choose our short term self interest or our longer term self interest?

Contact information for Provincial officials…

– google government of Saskatchewan

(or checkout our last blog-post)

-Message from Mike Bray

Here is a copy of the handbills that will be distributed this thursday Noon in Regina, Scarth Street mall as part of one of many ongoing information sharing projects…

April is Earth Month, a time to think about the damage we are doing to the earth systems that give us life.

In Saskatchewan, the environment is facing a big new threat from tar sands (also called oil sands) development in the province and in Alberta. Tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest sources of energy in the world. The processes used to extract the tarry oil, known as bitumen, are causing an ecological and a human catastrophe.

    ! Greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands production are 5 times those of conventional oil production. The Alberta oil sands are the single biggest contributor to the growth of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. In Saskatchewan, oil sands exploration is already well underway, with production slated to start in 2009. Saskatchewan will not be able to meet its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 32% by 2020 if it continues with its oil sands development.
    ! It takes 2 – 4.5 barrels of fresh water to produce 1 barrel of tar sands oil. Tar sands development is the source of the fastest growing water loss and contamination in Canada. Much of the water is lost to the water cycle forever as it is too toxic to be recoverable. In Alberta, water spewing from tar sands production has infected fish and wildlife, causing sickness among First Nations communities downstream.
    ! Acid rain from Alberta oil sands production is already affecting Saskatchewan’s lakes. According to the Environmental Defence Fund, 70% of the  sulphur that enters Alberta’s airshed as a result of oil sands production ends up in Saskatchewan. Acid rain has an adverse effect on lakes, rivers, forests, soils, buildings, and human health.
    ! Tar sands extraction processes blight the landscape and have huge effects on human and animal life over a very large area. In Saskatchewan, the bitumen is too deep to be surface mined, as it is in many locations in Alberta. Instead, what is known as the in situ extraction method will be used: the injection of steam and other solvents down a well to make the bitumen flow. For each well-site that is built, a substantial area of forest has to be  cleared. The process also requires a huge infrastructure of pipes that crisscross the landscape, interfering with wildlife and human activity.
    ! First Nations rights are being ignored by governments and oil companies in the race for oil sands development. Oilsand Quest, incorporated in Colorado, is the leading oil sands company in Saskatchewan, with land-lease holdings of over 500,000 acres in the province’s northwest. An Oilsands Quest representative recently stated in a CBC interview that the company does not have to recognize Dene hunting rights in the area as hunters have no licenced right. First Nations traditional lands in both Alberta and Saskatchewan are being destroyed for tar sands exploration and extraction.
    ! Aside from environmental and public health degradation, the people of Saskatchewan will derive very little from oil sands development. Saskatchewan royalty rates are among the lowest in the world. In a recent interview, Energy and Resources Minister Bill Boyd stated that the government has no intention of raising them. Most of the oil companies in Saskatchewan are subsidiaries of American corporations. Most of the oil will be exported to the US in the form of crude oil.

Sources: CBC, Leader Post, Globe and Mail,,

Earlier in April, a number of First Nations and non-Aboriginal organizations came together to form a coalition called Keepers of the Water, Saskatchewan. Keepers of the Water is calling for a moratorium on oil sands development in Alberta and Saskatchewan until an environmental and health impact assessment has been conducted and a legal framework to protect environmental and human health has been implemented.

Voice your concerns about tar sands development in Saskatchewan by contacting

Premier Brad Wall: 787-9433;

Energy and Resources Minister Bill Boyd: 787-9124;

Minister of the Environment Nancy Heppner: 787-0393;

(energy source)

”   But such measures, even if coupled with efforts to conserve water across
the industry, may not be sufficient. Even if the industry saves water, it is
still drawing people to Alberta. David Schindler regards population growth
driven by the oil boom in a drying climate as an intractable complication.
He doubts the province’s rivers can handle a projected 12 million people by
the next century. He recommends keeping “human populations in the dry
Prairie provinces relatively low, to avoid the water scarcity that has
already become a major problem in the southwestern United States.

To John Thompson, the resource economist, the big issue now boils down to
leadership: “We are water-short, and there are limits to growth. But who
wants to be the politician who shatters the Alberta myth and says we are
running out of stuff on the last frontier?”

And who wants to deflate the Sask Party agenda to make Saskatchewan into
another Alberta?

And yes, you read correctly:  12 million people projected to live in
Alberta.  I’ve forgotten the number for Saskatchewan.  Equally chilling.
Water is absolutely critical.

(2)  ANDREW NIKIFORUK, GLOBE & MAIL, MARCH 28, 2008   Liquid asset – Could
the oil sands, Canada’s greatest economic project, come undone simply
because no one thought about water?



The Athabasca River at the beginning of Andrew Nikiforuk’s article below.
The North Saskatchewan River near the end.

But about Sask Tar Sands, being developed by Oilsands Quest Inc.:

Note that Pamela Wallin is on the Board of Directors

Later I will circulate information – I am quite sure that the Ghermesian
Brothers of West Edmonton Mall fame, are involved in this, too.

” Oilsands Quest Inc. is a public company (Amex: BQI) engaged in a variety
of projects in the oil and gas industry in Western Canada with an emphasis
on the oil sands. The company is aggressively exploring Canada’s largest
contiguous oil sands land holding, which is located in northeast Alberta and
northwest Saskatchewan. Oilsands Quest is leading the development of an oil
sands industry in the province of Saskatchewan.

Oilsands Quest is incorporated in Colorado, U.S.A. Its main operating
subsidiaries are Oilsands Quest Sask Inc., Township Petroleum Corporation
and Oilsands Quest Technology Inc.”

Board of Directors

(You can get biographies from the website.)

T. Murray Wilson, Executive Chairman (4)
Christopher H. Hopkins
Thomas Milne (1-C) (2) (3)
Ronald Phillips (1) (2-C)
John Read (2) (4)
Gordon Tallman (1) (3-C) (4)
William Scott Thompson (2) (4-C)
Pamela Wallin, O.C. (3) (4)

I don’t have time today.  We need to track down contact information for
these people and start communicating with them, and the Government of
Saskatchewan.  All parties need to know that they will be held accountable
for water and environmental quality.  We will protect the land from the
ravages of these insane people.

In Saskatchewan we are in a position to take pre-emptive action.  We can
learn from the situation in Alberta with the Tar Sands.  (notice the
wordsmiths at work:  they are no longer “tar” sands, but rather “oil” sands.

There is much to be communicated to them.  This excellent article by Andres
Nikiforuk is a start.




Liquid asset – Could the oil sands, Canada’s greatest economic project, come
undone simply because no one thought about water?


Globe and Mail Update

March 28, 2008 at 7:00 AM EDT

Here in Canada, we tend to think that while water scarcity, drying rivers
and toxic lakes may be huge global problems, they really only affect places
like China and the Middle East. But the rapid development of Alberta’s oil
sands, coupled with accelerating population growth and climate change, has
turned arid Alberta into Canada’s ground zero for water. Our history is all
about exploiting our abundance of natural resources, and Alberta is the
embodiment of the frontier’s boundless promise. Could our tradition of
taming the landscape finally have been arrested by something as humble as

The water experts say yes. The Canadian dean of the discipline, the
University of Alberta’s David Schindler, wrote in 2006 that Alberta, along
with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, will soon face “a crisis in water quantity
and quality with far-reaching implications.” Natural Resources Canada has
predicted shortages for Calgary as early as 2050 if conservation efforts
don’t improve drastically. The federal government’s 2007 report on the oil
sands concluded that “the Athabasca basin could encounter serious problems
unless there is a radical change in water use.”

While the energy boom is bringing the issue to a head, Alberta’s looming
water crisis owes something to natural factors as well as human-made ones.
Lying in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the province is one of the
driest places in Canada, with but 2.2% of the nation’s fresh water. It’s
also prone to long, bone-bleaching droughts. Both historical accounts and
tree-ring studies show that European immigrants settled the province during
the wettest century in the last 2,000 years. This data also suggests that
the dust bowl of the Dirty Thirties was a minor event and that no European
has ever seen the kind of 20-year droughts that have characterized Alberta’s
climate over the millenniums.

In addition, Alberta shares with the rest of the nation a geographic
vulnerability. Most of its water is in the north while most of its people
live in the south. Albertans are concentrated in the South Saskatchewan
River basin, where the city of Calgary, industry and irrigation drink lots
of water. Yet the basin and its northern cousin, which drain into Hudson
Bay, hold only 20% of the province’s supply. Northern rivers such as the
Athabasca and the Peace carry about 80% of the province’s water into
Canada’s largest watershed, the Mackenzie River basin, which drains into the

Unlike most of the country, however, Alberta has a regulatory system that
allocates blue gold on a “first in time and first in right” basis. The
system “is designed to deal with shortages,” explains John Thompson, an
Edmonton-based resource economist and water expert. During periods of
scarcity, the rules are clear: Those who hold the oldest licences get the
water; the newest ones, as Thompson puts it, must “stand back from the

River basins, of course, need water for fish, birds and wetlands as well as
for human uses. Prompted by declining river flows and fish kills, the
province dramatically closed the South Saskatchewan River basin two years
ago, ruling that no one can put more straws into the river.

The overallocation that led to the closure has been compounded by a paucity
of data on surface water and groundwater. A 2008 report by the Alberta Water
Council, a non-profit watchdog set up by the province, described “the
availability, quality and accessibility of data” as a concern. The alert was
echoed by the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada, a non-profit research
group that regards water as “the environmental issue of the century.” In a
recent paper, the alliance concluded that “rapidly growing demands for
water, where data is limited due to reduced government-supported
data-gathering in the last 20 to 40 years, will drive and limit

Climate change has also begun to disrupt the province’s water budget. A
warmer and more extreme climate means less water when you need it most. (It
can also mean too much water when you need it least.) Thanks to temperature
increases of two to four degrees over the past 30 years, most Rocky Mountain
glaciers have lost nearly a third of their mass, while snow packs, the
source of most drinking water, have also shrunk. As a consequence, river
flows in the summer have declined by 30% to 85%. Schindler predicts that a
collision of population growth, drought and climate warming will soon teach
“Albertans first-hand what water scarcity is all about.” He thinks that
rapid oil sands development may well be water’s tipping point. While some in
the industry agree, many others see shortfalls as another challenging
opportunity that calls for technological fixes. “With the pressure on water
in northern Alberta, one thing is for sure,” says John Robertson, a senior
manager with CH2M Hill, the global engineering giant: The industry will have
to spend “hundreds of millions in the next few years to treat and reuse
In the last 12 years, the world’s most powerful oil companies, including
Imperial Oil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, British Petroleum, Total and Norway’s
StatoilHydro, have all rushed to Fort McMurray to plunk down more than $150
billion in the oil sands. The frenzied pace of investment and construction
in one of the globe’s last proven oil reserves has created a national
project even bigger than the transcontinental railway. The oil sands are the
world’s largest energy project. Nothing in any sector matches it for capital

The rapid approval of more than 50 oil sands projects since 1996 has not
only made Canada the No. 1 supplier of oil to the United States but also the
world’s seventh-largest producer. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has
described the oil sands “as an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the
building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.” Economists
calculate that the oil sands will contribute nearly $1 trillion to Canada’s
gross domestic product by 2020.
But the prized resource really isn’t oil per se, but bitumen. It’s a tarry
and dirty mixture of clay, water and hydrocarbons that lies, sometimes
shallow and sometimes deep, under a quarter of Alberta’s land mass.
Extracting this bitumen from the sand takes remarkable volumes of energy and
water. Indeed, every phase of production in the oil sands-from the open-pit
mines to the refineries in Upgrader Alley-demands a lot of water, and
dirties a lot of water too.

Mining bitumen resembles bulldozing mountaintops to excavate coal deposits
in Appalachia-except that it’s boreal forest that’s being removed. A
half-dozen city-sized mines now line the banks of the Athabasca River.

[picture of Athabasca River next to 6km wide toxic tarsands tailing pond]

On average, the mines consume between three and four barrels of fresh water
to produce one barrel of bitumen. Most of the water is heated to separate
the hydrocarbons from sand and clay in a process akin to operating a giant
washing machine. Although companies such as Syncrude recycle their water as
many as 18 times, the industry still procures most of its water from the
Athabasca River or from aquifers that feed the river.

The degree of water use directly reflects the quality of ore recovered, says
Bruce Peachey, president of New Paradigm Engineering in Edmonton. “We are
presently mining the best ores. But as clay content increases, the volume of
water needed in production will increase. So this is the good time for

The industry now accounts for more than 76% of the water allocations on the
Athabasca River, Alberta’s longest undammed waterway. Current licences allow
industry to take 3.2 billion barrels of fresh water a year-enough to supply
two cities the size of Calgary. Planned expansions could bring the total to
4.2 billion barrels per year, a volume Natural Resources Canada says “would
not be sustainable because the Athabasca River does not have sufficient

Although environmental and aboriginal groups have long campaigned for the
provincial government to enact a firm water policy for the river, nothing
materialized until the province released a scathing report on oil sands
development in February, 2007. Written by Doug Radke, the former deputy
minister of the environment, the report called the province’s ability to
enforce environmental regulations “inadequate” and described planning on the
cumulative effects of the oil sands as “unclear, outdated and incomplete.”
Echoing the federal opinion, it also noted that the Athabasca River may not
be able to support what’s planned.
The next month, Alberta Environment and the federal Department of Fisheries
produced an interim plan for the river. The framework, which gives the
province two more years to figure out what quantity of water the river
really needs to sustain fish, works like a stoplight. Green-light conditions
allow industry to withdraw up to 15% of the flow; a yellow light encourages
industry to proceed with caution by reducing withdrawals to 10% of flow; and
a red light restricts allocations even further. But even during a drought,
when the red light is on, industry will get enough water to fill 50 bathtubs
per second.

Preston McEachern, the head of oil sands research for Alberta Environment,
calls the framework conservative and precautionary. “There is a lot of water
in that river…and our numbers [for withdrawals] are low compared to
industrialized rivers in Europe or the United States.” Still, the caps will
challenge companies “to plan their projects with exceptional environmental

Schindler calls the framework “inadequate.” But he reckons it’s probably as
good as the government could do, given the data deficit on the river. He
notes that current and approved withdrawals “would already put the river in
red-zone conditions for several months in winter during low-flow years.”

Moreover, winter and summer flows of the river have declined 30% since 1970,
and could drop more than 60% by 2050.
Solutions to the imbalance of supply and demand on the river are numbered,
says Paradigm Engineering’s Peachey. Companies can reduce water consumption
or build greater storage for water upstream of the mines on the Athabasca.
Or the government could put the brakes on development. Although industry and
government have set a goal of producing three million barrels a day by 2015,
Peachey thinks water availability could well constrain such exuberance. “In
either case, the growing public awareness of the need to protect
environmental resources, and the concurrent need to protect local
communities from the sudden loss of a major employer, will create
considerable social conflicts over any solution proposed.”

Lawsuits might also start flying. A 2007 article in the University of
Toronto Faculty of Law Review concluded that an American company could
construe the cancellation of an Alberta water licence as expropriation under
the North American Free Trade Act and then sue the Alberta government for
compensation. Preston McEachern of Alberta Environment agrees: “Those types
of scenarios could be played out in the future and could become a real test
of political will.”

Some 90% of the water withdrawn from the Athabasca River for the oil sands
ends up as waste in tailings ponds. Nearly a dozen ponds line both sides of
the river and pose an enduring threat to the entire Mackenzie River basin.
Many are already leaking and creating their own tainted wetlands. Even the
pro-development Alberta Chamber of Resources considers this primitive form
of long-term storage “a risk to the oil sands industry.”
The ponds, which contain a ketchup-consistency mix of w
ater, oil and clay, give off a strong aroma of hydrocarbons and rarely
freeze. Minnows dropped into the ponds die within 96 hours; unwary ducks get
coated by surface oil and drown.
The ponds, like everything in the oil sands, are supersized. The dykes that
contain the ponds can reach 100 metres in height. Although the ponds already
cover 55 square kilometres of forest and muskeg, they’ve just begun. Within
a decade, they will cover an area of 150 square kilometres.

According to the Alberta Chamber of Resources, the industry spits out six
barrels of sand and 11/2 barrels of fine tailings for every barrel of oil it
makes. Altogether, the ponds contain 5.5 billion cubic metres of sand and
fluid waste.
Syncrude, the largest producer in the oil sands, also owns the largest
tailing pond. Every day, Syncrude dumps 500,000 tons of tailings. The
Syncrude Tailings Dam is deemed by the U.S. Department of the Interior to be
the world’s largest dam by volume of construction material. The pond, built
in 1973, covers 22 square kilometres and holds 540 million cubic metres of
water, crud and sand. When China completes the Three Gorges Dam this year,
Syncrude will surrender the record. “We are still second-best,” quips Randy
Mikula, who has been studying the tailings waste problem for 22 years.

As the team leader on the subject at Natural Resources Canada’s CANMET
Energy Technology Centre in Devon, Alberta, Mikula calls the tailings waste
problem a “frightening” and vexatious issue. Engineers originally thought
that the tailings waste would quickly settle, leaving clear water on top.
But that never happened, thanks to what Mikula calls “the bad behaviour of
clays.” He suspects the waste won’t settle to solid form for thousands of
years. “So something has to be done.”

The prospect of a major dyke failure has also raised concerns. Every
tailings pond contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), napthenic
acids, heavy metals, salts and bitumen. The Canadian Association of
Petroleum Producers reports that of 25 PAHs studied by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency, 14 are human carcinogens. Both PAHs and
napthenic acids kill fish.
In 2003, the intergovernmental Mackenzie River Basin Board identified the
tailings ponds as a singular threat. It noted that “an accident related to
the failure of one of the oil sands tailing ponds could have a catastrophic
impact on the aquatic ecosystem of the Mackenzie River basin.”

Peachey, Schindler and other water experts agree. Engineering studies also
highlight an uncomfortable truth: The reliability of mine waste containment
dykes is among the lowest of all earth-made structures. “The longer the
tailings sit there, the more likely there will be a major extreme weather
event and a big dyke failure,” predicts Peachey. In Schindler’s view, “the
world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez” if a dyke failed.

The Alberta government is getting worried. Preston McEachern calls the ponds
his No. 1 concern: “We know they leak and we capture these leakages or let
some fall into poor-quality water formations…but it’s the long term. What
do we do as they build up?” The good news, concludes Mikula, is that both
industry and government are pouring millions into research on containment.
The bad news is that there is already evidence of downstream health effects.
Last November, a study for the Nunee Health Board Society in Fort Chipewyan,
300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, found elevated levels of mercury,
arsenic and PAHs in local waters. The report asked if these contaminants
were connected with dramatic increases in fish deformities and rare forms of
cancer in the community, and called for a major health study. To date, the
Alberta government has not taken up the recommendation.

Downstream users are worried. “We have tremendous concerns in terms of the
pace of development and contamination issues,” says Michael Miltenberger,
Minister of Environment and Natural Resources for the Northwest Territories.
“What happens on the Athabasca affects people as far away as Inuvik.”

Open-pit mines aren’t the only big water users in the oil sands. About 80%
of all bitumen deposits lie too deep in the ground for open-pit mining. To
access these lower-quality deposits, the oil industry has developed a number
of novel technologies. The most popular, steam-assisted gravity drainage,
injects high-pressure steam into a bitumen formation with one pipe and then
brings the melted hydrocarbon to the surface with another pipe.

Land leased for SAGD production now covers an area larger than Vancouver
Island, which means that this kind of drilling could affect water resources
over an area 50 times greater than the open-pit mines. The industry
calculates that it takes about one barrel of raw water (sometimes taken from
deep, salty aquifers) to produce a barrel of oil using SAGD. But researchers
suspect it often takes much more water. “It’s just as big a problem as the
mines, and it’s not going away,” adds Peachey. “And we don’t have a plan or
strategy for it other than reducing water usage as fast as possible.”

SAGD’s thirst for water, mostly used to make steam, has a host of
implications. Industry used to think that it needed only two barrels’ worth
of steam to melt one barrel of bitumen out of deep formations. But the
reservoirs have proved unco-operative. The multibillion-dollar Long Lake
project south of Fort McMurray, a joint venture of Nexen and Opti Canada,
originally predicted an average steam-to-oil ratio of 2.4:1. But the joint
venture now forecasts a 3.3:1 ratio.

This dramatic but typical loss in efficiency means companies have to drain
more aquifers to produce more steam. In order to heat the water, the
companies purchase more natural gas, which, in turn, means more
greenhouse-gas emissions. By some estimates, SAGD could ultimately consume
the equivalent of the entire gas supply of Western Canada. “A lot of
projects may prove uneconomic in their second or third phases because it
takes too much steam to recover the oil,” says one Calgary-based SAGD
developer, who asked to remain anonymous.
Due to the spectacular projected growth in SAGD (nearly $4 billion worth of
construction a year until 2015), Alberta Environment can no longer
accurately predict water demand. The Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based
energy watchdog, reported that the use of fresh water for SAGD in 2004
increased three times faster than the government forecast of 5.4 million
cubic metres a year. Despite the province’s effort to get companies to
switch to salty groundwater, SAGD could still be drawing more than 50% of
its volume from freshwater sources by 2015.

SAGD also generates formidable piles of waste. Companies can’t make steam
without first desalinating the brackish water. An average SAGD producer
generates as much as “15 million kilograms of salts and water-solvent
carcinogens,” which simply gets trucked to landfills, the SAGD developer
says. Because the waste could eventually contaminate groundwater, John
Robertson of CH2M Hill calls the salt disposal problem “a perpetual care
issue.” The anonymous SAGD developer adds, “There is no regulatory oversight
of these landfills, and these problems will be enormously difficult to fix.”

But the biggest sleeper issue for SAGD production may be overall changes in
the water table over time. “If you take out a barrel of oil from
underground, it will be replaced with a barrel of water from somewhere,”
explains Peachey. Here again, the lack of research data is problematic:
Alberta “doesn’t have enough data to understand surface and groundwater
connections” in the oil sands region, says Peachey.

Given SAGD’s record as a natural gas burner and producer of greenhouse gas
emissions (three times that of conventional oil), both the Canadian
government and the industry regard nuclear power as an energy alternative.
The French nuclear giant Areva has said it can add four reactors to the
province’s grid, while Energy Alberta Corp. has suggested building as many
as 11 Candu reactors. While some of these reactors would provide power for
bitumen mining, oil shale (a hard-rock form of bitumen) and SAGD operators,
others would upgrade bitumen into marketable oil.

But that plan doesn’t solve the water problem, because nuclear power
requires enormous volumes of water for cooling. It is estimated that just
one reactor, proposed for Grimshaw, would require 20 times the amount of
water used by the city of Calgary. Such a plant would also lose nearly 57
billion litres of water a year to evaporation.

The final act of the oil sands process will be reclamation of the land. The
mining will eventually dig up an area that is the size of Lake Erie and is
largely comprised of boreal wetlands. Wetlands are known as the “kidneys” of
a watershed because they regulate flow and remove contaminants. According to
Lee Foote, a wetlands specialist at the University of Alberta, no one really
knows yet how to reclaim a fen, bog or peatland in the oil sands. He
calculates that the cost of replacing the projected 96,000 hectares of mined
wetland, depending on the replacement standards adopted, could, at $25,000 a
hectare, range between $7 billion and $24 billion. “It’s a significant
liability if it can be done at all,” Foote says.

Turning bitumen into cleaner oil requires “upgrading” to create a product
that can be refined into fuels and petrochemicals. The process also
requires-surprise-lots of water for cooling and refining. Thus, proposals to
build as many as 15 upgraders outside Edmonton, along the North Saskatchewan
River, have spawned yet another water controversy.

Given that the industry has neither the room nor the labour force to build
more upgraders in Fort McMurray, a host of oil companies have proposed
building nearly $30 billion worth of upgraders in the area east of Edmonton
that has become Alberta’s industrial heartland. Three separate pipelines
would supply the upgraders with fresh bitumen.

But the upgraders, like their bitumen-mining cousins, gulp lakes of water.
The North West Upgrader, under construction by a Calgary firm, will annually
use up to 5.6 billion litres of water from the North Saskatchewan-a river
only a third the size of the Athabasca.

Last year, a report done by the engineering firm Morrison Hershfield for
Strathcona and Sturgeon counties added up the water footprint for the
upgrader boom. Each facility would require anywhere between 16 and 20
megalitres of water a day-the equivalent of six to eight Olympic-sized
swimming pools. By 2026, their daily thirst could amount to between 200 and
240 megalitres or the equivalent of more than 80 Olympic-sized swimming
pools. In contrast, the city of Edmonton uses 350 megalitres a day and
returns most of that water to the river in treated form. The upgraders,
however, won’t do that: Some 70% of the water will be consumed or lost to

The oil patch rates as the North Saskatchewan basin’s second-highest water
user (18%), behind other industry in general. The upgrader boom, however,
will make the petroleum sector No. 1. In fact, a recent report for the North
Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance says that “nearly all of the projected
increase in surface water use will be in the petroleum sector.” By 2015, the
upgraders’ demands on the river will increase water use by 278%, and, by
2025, by 339%. John Thompson, author of the report, says the absence of an
authoritative study on the river’s ecosystem remains the central issue. “We
don’t know what it takes to maintain the river’s health.”

Providing energy for the upgraders will also take a toll on water. Sherritt
International and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan are proposing to
strip-mine a 312-square-kilometre area just east of Upgrader Alley for coal.
A gasification plant would render the coal into synthetic gas and hydrogen
to power the upgraders. Current estimates suggest that the project will
likely need somewhere between two million and nine million cubic metres of
water from the North Saskatchewan annually. Strip-mining farmland will also
“affect groundwater aquifers and surface water hydrology,” according to the
Pembina Institute, an Alberta energy-sustainability think tank.

Last December, Alberta Environment released a new framework for the river
that concluded “ample capacity exists in the North Saskatchewan River to
support a healthy industry and growing population.” The report okayed all
current projects but noted that “the current level of proposed development
calls out for a comprehensive review.” The ministry also noted that “water
quality could continue to decline without cumulative limits in place and
actions to mitigate further impacts.”

The fix to the shortfall championed by both industry and government involves
using Edmonton’s grey water. Instead of allowing a dozen upgraders to stick
individual straws in the North Saskatchewan, the city’s utility company,
Epcor, would pipe the city’s treated waste water to the upgraders. This
would both lessen the load of chemicals on the river (treated waste water
contains nitrogen and phosphorus) and provide a secure supply for the
industry. “It’s a good solution for the industrial heartland and the river,”
says Joe Gysel, vice-president of marketing and business development at

But even if they use waste water-a common practice in water-short California
and Colorado-the upgraders will be removing lots of water from the river.
Given that no study on the river’s water needs has yet been done, Schindler
calls the framework’s claims that there is lots of water in the river
“pretty hollow.” He also notes that the framework avoids any mention of
declining river flows or the expected effects of climate change.

Historically, the North Saskatchewan River has been subject to extreme
variations in flow, notes Dave Sauchyn, a climate change specialist at the
University of Regina. In 1796, a drought year, the Hudson’s Bay Co. had
trouble moving furs, “there being no water in the river,” as an eyewitness
put it. Sauchyn says that 80 years of record keeping on the river are
insufficient to predict variability in water availability. He adds that the
lowest and one of the highest flows recorded on the river both took place
between 2001 and 2005. Sauchyn, who has recently begun to study the impact
of climate change on the river, already has a “gut reaction” to the idea of
putting as many as 15 upgraders along its banks: “They should be thinking
about whether it’s judicious to proceed, or how to store water during low

How can oil and water be diverted from their collision course in Alberta? No
magic bullet has yet appeared, other than a dramatic slowdown in
development. Indeed, in February, much of the industry itself-including
Suncor, Petro-Canada, Husky Energy, Shell Canada and Imperial Oil-signed a
letter calling on Alberta to impose a partial moratorium on oil sands
development. While some industry players opposed the call, Environment
Canada and aboriginal groups endorsed it. The letter addressed the need for
the conservation of land rather than water per se, but the alert nonetheless
signals the first groundswell recognition that the national project of the
oil sands needs to pay more attention to the environment. The provincial
government opposes a moratorium on the grounds that it will stymie
innovation in the oil patch.

Some fixes for specific problems have been proposed. A number of companies
are already working to conserve water. Suncor, the first enterprise in the
sands, reduced water consumption by 30% between 2004 and 2006. One of its
facilities uses no fresh water at all. “We are flipping the paradigm from
the myth of water abundance to the reality of water scarcity,” says Gord
Lambert, Suncor’s vice-president of sustainable development. “The status quo
is not acceptable from an economic and environmental point of view.”

Indeed, producers that have their water issues under control are likely to
have an advantage over those that do not. An October, 2007, report on the
oils sands by Scotia Capital warned that the industry probably has “another
one to two years before this issue [water] comes to the forefront, at which
point approvals will become more difficult to obtain, adding a premium to
those companies whose projects are preapproved, or projects that use no
water. ”

To deal with the phenomenal growth of tailings waste, some companies have
embraced a controversial burial system known as “end pit lakes.” It entails
piping the waste into excavated mine pits, covering the tailings with fresh
water from the Athabasca River and then waiting hundreds of years for Mother
Nature to find a solution. Mikula says there is very little evidence for the
effectiveness of the scheme.

A better solution might be a sort of “brute force” centrifugal approach,
says Mikula. It involves spinning the material to create something dry and
stackable that could eventually be reclaimed-while recovering water at the
same time. Both Syncrude and Suncor have begun pilot projects. “We could
reduce water usage from four barrels to two [per barrel of oil] or maybe
less, which means less water withdrawn from the Athabasca,” says Mikula.

One solution to the upgrader concentration on the North Saskatchewan River
might be to simply distribute the plants across Western Canada.

But such measures, even if coupled with efforts to conserve water across the
industry, may not be sufficient. Even if the industry saves water, it is
still drawing people to Alberta. David Schindler regards population growth
driven by the oil boom in a drying climate as an intractable complication.
He doubts the province’s rivers can handle a projected 12 million people by
the next century. He recommends keeping “human populations in the dry
Prairie provinces relatively low, to avoid the water scarcity that has
already become a major problem in the southwestern United States.”

To John Thompson, the resource economist, the big issue now boils down to
leadership: “We are water-short, and there are limits to growth. But who
wants to be the politician who shatters the Alberta myth and says we are
running out of stuff on the last frontier?”


Information from:
Sandra Finley
Saskatoon  SK  S7N 0L1

We Are Not For Sale

March 18, 2008

Whether we’re looking at the environment, the plights of Aboriginal peoples, climate change, health problems, drug addiction and suicide, nuclear power, or oil sovereignty, the Saskatchewan Tar Sands Truth Project is a movement, a body, and a principle aimed at critically analysing the effects of oil sands mining. Join us in speaking out against the detrimental effects of an unsustainable industry on our province, country, and planet.


Under a new conservative government, we have all the more reason to be worried about our place in the global energy race. Sask Party leader and Premier Brad Wall has wasted no time in consulting with the business elite of Alberta and Washington over our oil reserves. But should Saskatchewan, too, be enslaved by the demands of our American neighbours, who currently consume over 70% of Canadian oil? Left with little to no energy security, and having to import oil from places such as Iraq and Libya, as well as the nightmarish environmental catastrophe, Canada must look at the real cost of such development.

Please feel free to use this site as a space to discuss issues of concern regarding the tar sands industry–specifically in terms of Saskatchewan. Articles, photos, and discussion threads are all welcome.

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