New Water Use Restrictions Highlight Influence of Climate on Oilsands, Need for Stronger Rules

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is restricting water withdrawals for oil and gas operators in several river basins across the province due to extremely dry summer conditions and low water levels. Restrictions have been put in place for the Upper Athabasca Region but not the Lower Athabasca Region where several major oilsands companies operate.

The regulator is also asking oil and gas companies to voluntarily limit their water consumption for dry areas not currently under withdrawal bans.

The restrictions affect temporary diversion licences which grant oil and gas operators permission to use ground and river water for drilling, dust control and other purposes.

Oilsands majors Syncrude and Suncor, which use water to process bitumen, are exempt from the restrictions because they are situated in the Lower Athabasca Region. But due to special permits under Alberta’s Surface Water Quantity Management Framework, the restrictions wouldn't impact their operations ­— something onlookers are saying makes little sense in a region suffering the impacts of climate change.

Climate Change Limiting Water for Oilsands Operators, New Study Finds

According to a new article in the journal Climactic Change, climate change, induced by activities in the oilsands region, has the ability to limit streamflow in the Athabasca River Basin.

The reduced water flow will affect not only ecosystems, but also future oilsands operations, something the study’s authors, Doris Leong and Simon Donner, say industry and policy makers may need to consider going forward.

The impact of climate change on streamflow of the Athabasca River Basin, and how that may create or exacerbate trade-offs between ecological and industry water needs, is largely absent from the discourse on future bitumen production.”

Oilsands operations are the biggest water users in the Athabasca River Basin and “surface water use demand is projected to rapidly increase” as that activity expands, Leong and Donner write.

The region is also ecologically sensitive, the authors argue, and provides “important nesting and staging areas and habitat for a diverse wildlife population.”

The Athabasca River is a tributary of the Mackenzie, Canada’s longest river. The Mackenzie River Basin is considered Canada’s “Serengeti” due to its high levels of biodiversity and ecological productivity.

The region is considered a valuable carbon sink but is undergoing significant changes due to climate change. An international panel of experts found thawing permafrost, drying peatlands and wildfires are releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Major Oilsands Developers Syncrude and Suncor Exempt from Restrictions

According to Jesse Cardinal, from the environmental non-profit group Keepers of the Athabasca, low water levels in the region are expect to increase as a result of climate change.

Science is predicting that it will become more common to have low water levels,” she said. “However only some companies are restricted on water use.”

Cardinal said Suncor, Syncrude and Shell can “continue taking as much water as they want.” AER spokesman Jordan Fitzgerald told the Edmonton Journal the new restrictions don't apply to these companies as their “operations are located in the Lower Athabasca Region and the restrictions put in place by Alberta Environment and Parks do not apply to that area.”

But if restrictions were extended to the Lower Athabasca, these companies would remain exempt from water use limits.

During development of the province’s current water use rules, Suncor and Syncrude insisted on the “seniority of their water licences,” according to Simon Dyer from the Pembina Institute.

The companies argued “their reliance on old infrastructure should allow them to continue to withdraw water from the Lower Athabasca River, no matter how low the flow gets,” Dyer said in a letter to Alberta Environment.

Dyer argued the province should implement absolute water restrictions to protect ecosystems that rely on rivers like the Athabasca during times of extremely low flow.

Dyer said Alberta’s failure to place water withdrawal limits on Suncor and Syncrude means the province holds the companies “to a lower environmental standard…putting at risk the aquatic ecosystem of one of Alberta’s most ecologically and culturally important rivers.”

In May as Alberta was overwhelmed by severe wildfires, Keepers of the Athabasca asked the province’s new NDP government to review the water use rules.

The group argued water rules are based “on our once vibrant past when water was plentiful.”

Cardinal said the low flow of Alberta’s rivers isn’t just about water quantity, it’s also about water quality.

Everywhere in Alberta, we are experiencing dry conditions, meaning the quality of our drinking water is more fragile, the fish, and ultimately life.”

Giving unrestricted water rights to major companies “compromises community health and treaty rights and gives corporations first rights to water over communities and living beings,” she said.

Image Credit: Pembina Institute