Tar Sands Oil Extraction Uses more Water than Entire City of Toronto

Friday, August 09, 2013
Tar sands extraction in Alberta (photo: Jeff McIntosh, AP)

In the United States, concerns over the Keystone pipeline project have focused on how much it might impact global warming, as well as the American ecosystem. But in Canada, where the tar sands oil that would flow through the pipeline is extracted, a major worry is over the huge volume of fresh water required to perform such work.


In order to extract oil from tar sands, oil companies use super-heated water to carry out this separation process. Two years ago, these operations sucked about 370 million cubic meters of water (or 2.3 billion barrels) from the Athabasca River, which is more that the amount of water that the city of Toronto, with a population 2.8 million people, uses annually.


Tar sands companies get this water for free, needing only a license from the province of Alberta.


They also aren’t required to clean the water before it gets pumped into underground aquifers or tailings ponds, which now cover 170 square kilometers, or 66 square miles, of territory in northern Alberta.


Many scientists and economists say the tar sands industry has already reached a tipping point in its dependence on both surface and groundwater, according to Ed Struzik at Environment 360.


“Nowhere in the world are we seeing this amount of groundwater being used for industrial development,” William Donahue, a freshwater scientist, lawyer, and special advisor to Water Matters, an Alberta-based think tank, told Struzik. “The scale of these withdrawals is massive and totally unsustainable.”


To make matters worse, an internal government memo prepared for Canada’s Natural Resources Minister in June 2012 reported “potentially harmful, mining-related organic acid contaminants in the groundwater outside a long-established... tailings pond.”


The study also suggested that small amounts of acids might be reaching the Athabasca River.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

With Tar Sands Development, Growing Concern on Water Use (by Ed Struzik, Environment 360)

Deformed Fish Found Downstream from Oil Sand Project; Next Stop…Utah (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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