Thank you very much, Mr. Vice-Chair.
Thank you to the committee for allowing me to present here today. I have a little brief that I was hoping to develop as a power-point presentation. I'd like to take some time and go through this handout if I may.
With your permission, I'm going to speak a little in French.
I'm a professor from the University of Alberta in the environmental engineering group of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. I've focused a little bit on the environmental issues related to the oil sands. These are things I believe you've seen in your previous committee meetings, but I thought I'd go back over them and set the stage in terms of the technologies we're looking at to resolve some of those environmental issues.
Some of this information you saw first-hand yesterday in your flyover, and you'll see the oil sands cover a very large surface area. We have a lot of known reserves. Most of those reserves are accessible by the in situ technologies, but about 20% of reserves are also currently accessible by surface mining. So what you might have seen yesterday was probably surface mining activities, and that's what I would like to focus on a little bit here.
What are those environmental issues that are related to oil sand surface mining? The one you're here today to discuss is the environmental issues surrounding the water use of oil sands mining and oil sands surface mining. But directly related to that is the issue of tailings ponds. And also, as Murray Gray pointed out, energy use is another one of those environmental issues. I'd like to talk a little bit about each of those.
The first one I'd like to talk about is water use. We use the Clark hot water extraction process to extract the bitumen from the oil sands. There has always been a little bit of confusion, I think, regarding how much water it actually takes to extract bitumen from the oil sands. You'll notice I've given you a figure of about 12 to 13 barrels of water per barrel of bitumen. The process uses that much water, but 80% to 90% of that water is recycled. Two to about 4.5 barrels of fresh water are needed to make up for some of the water we can't recycle. So I think that's an important figure for us to look at when we're discussing those water issues surrounding oil sands development.
What that translates into is an excessive amount of fresh water is used from the Athabasca River. The water demands on the Athabasca River will continue to grow with further oil sands development. Most of that water that's used ends up in tailings ponds. With the zero discharge policy the oil sands companies have, we don't release that water back into the environment.
Directly related to water use is the problem of tailings ponds.
I'm going to continue in French.
I want to talk about tailings ponds. These are structures that we've put in place to hold extraction residues. These residues are placed in the tailings ponds and, after three to five years, the residues form what is called mature fine tailings, which consist of approximately 30% solids, the remainder being mainly water. This water is very difficult to recycle because it is tied up in the tailings.
The tailings take a very long time to settle, which means that our tailings ponds will remain there for many years. It must also be admitted that there are nearly 130 km2 of tailings ponds. The figure you often hear is 50 km2, but the Alberta government has revised its estimates, and we're now talking about 130 km2 of tailings ponds. So these tailings ponds will increase considerably. We also need new tailings ponds to store the tailings from our development.
You unfortunately noticed the deaths of a number of ducks. When you flew over the tailings ponds, you noted that they contain bitumen, which remains from the process that has not been extracted. There is also a lot of salt and toxic compounds such as naphthenic acids and other compounds such as heavy metals.
The consequence of the presence of these compounds is that the water cannot be released to the environment. We have to retain that water, which is currently recycled, but it cannot be recycled indefinitely. This water should be treated using quite major resources in order to be able to continue using it in future.
I'd like to continue then briefly with the energy use. I know this is not necessarily the focus, but it is an important environmental issue that we must address.
The energy use, for oil sands extraction and mining and upgrading, ranges in the order of 0.7 to 1.3 gigajoules per barrel of bitumen. By calculation, that translates to about 20% of a barrel of bitumen that's needed to produce one barrel of bitumen in terms of energy. The consequence of this is essentially increased greenhouse gas emissions, which we have seen with increased oil sands development. When we look at those environmental issues, we really need to think about what we can do to alleviate these environmental issues. As Murray Gray pointed out, we need new and innovative technologies, sort of the standout or transformative technology.
I look at these technologies in two ways. I look at technologies within the paradigm—within the technology we're currently using—and outside the paradigm, really taking that sort of leap forward and looking at new technologies that would really transform the way things are done in the oil sands industry. What do we need to get to these new technologies, these either inside- or outside-of-the-paradigm technologies? There are challenges there. For example, there is a large infrastructure, and you all saw it as you flew over the oil sands yesterday. There's a very large infrastructure. Often, the comment that has come back about new and innovative outside-of-the-paradigm technologies is that we can accommodate some incremental changes—minor incremental changes, but changes that are are definitely needed, no question about it.
There's this infrastructure that we can't just abandon sort of overnight to allow for these new big-leap transformative technologies. So what we need to do and should do and can do, I believe, is encourage research into new innovative technologies. For that, we need to develop policies that will drive innovation, and we also need to provide some sort of framework that would allow the development of these technologies and demonstration of these technologies beyond the basic research.
So we need to have that extra step, extra framework, in place so we can take these technologies from the lab to the field and potentially apply those in the field. We also need to continue to support research and development in improving the current process. That's a very important part of it. We need to deal with the problems now, but we also need to look into the future and develop very transformative technologies.
In summary, I'd just like to say that there are environmental issues you're all aware of related to the oil sands, but we have to believe innovation is possible, and we have to believe substantial improvements are possible—not just some improvement, but substantial improvement—and we need to develop the oil sands in a more responsible way into the future.