Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to you a little about, and to hear your questions about, water and the oil sands projects.
There are two main aspects to which I have given some study. One is the question of groundwater. That was done through the Expert Panel on Groundwater management in Canada, put in place by the Council of Canadian Academies. I think you have been sent copies of at least sections of that report. If you haven't received them, we'd be happy to provide you with copies of the Report in Focus—the short version of the report—in both official languages.
The other thing I would like to discuss is some earlier work I did from 2006 to 2008 for WWF Canada on trends in the flow of the Athabasca River and what they mean for water availability for the oil sands.
So if you give me enough time, I will try to cover both of these issues.
I'm sure you've had several other presentations, so you will be aware that the in situ recovery of bitumen at levels below about 75 metres is undertaken by steam injection to soften the bitumen and then to pump it back up to the surface. That steam injection, of course, requires water, and it's usually groundwater that's used. As for the amounts, they originally hoped it would in the order of half a barrel of water per barrel of recovered oil, but it now looks as if it's going to be substantially more than those values. It's very hard to get a good estimate. The original hope was also that they'd be able to use saline groundwater, but there are apparently some real problems with what to do with the salt when they take the water out of the ground. So they are using substantial quantities of natural groundwater.
In reviewing 11 case studies—eight in Canada and three in the United States—to get an idea of how sustainable our management of groundwater is, the panel selected a number of places across the country. One of them was the oil sands.
We relied heavily on the work of the Alberta Research Council in coming to our conclusions about the oil sands. Those appear on page 148 of our report. The questions that the Alberta Research Council raised in 2007 have not, to date, been satisfactorily answered—although, as I understand it, there is some motion towards getting some answers.
Let me review briefly what the Alberta Research Council said. They said that there was a whole bunch of unanswered questions.
How do low-flow levels in the Athabasca River affect shallow groundwater, and how does aquifer dewatering in the mine areas affect surface water systems?
What are the effects of increased mining activities on changing land cover or the effects of the diversion of groundwater out of mined areas on groundwater recharge?
How will changes in water quality resulting from aquifer disturbance and tailings pond leakage affect the quality of groundwater and surface water resources?
What data are required to assess the claim that deep injection of steam and waste does not negatively impact the regional and local aquifer systems? And are those data available?
What are the regional threshold objectives to ensure sustainable groundwater management?
And last, do planned developments have adverse impacts on water in adjoining jurisdictions, that is, the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan, and on downstream ecosystems?
The panel concluded that those projects had gone ahead with a completely inadequate understanding of the groundwater regime in the area, and they are having significant impacts on the groundwater regime.
We used it as an example to try to illustrate the fact that it's very important to get the basic information on groundwater before you move ahead with projects that can have a significant influence on the groundwater.
So we considered it a pretty unsustainable situation. We could talk about that later, if you wish.
Now to turn to the Athabasca River as a source water mainly for the surface mining operations...and this involves scraping off of the bitumen, along with the peat and the trees and the near-surface groundwater, down to about 75 metres, which is fairly deep. In this case, we do know that each barrel of bitumen consumes an average of three barrels of freshwater, mainly from the river. This strip mining operation also changes the shallow groundwater interchanges with the river, and has even obliterated some small tributary watersheds and one-half of the large 1,500-square kilometre Muskeg Creek watershed. It's projected that as projects move to heavier clay deposits, even more water will be needed to recover the bitumen.
Let's take water quantity first. Water quantity and quality are the two issues. In the water-taking permits that have been given, the amounts allocated for oil sands projects appear to have been based—I reviewed a couple of the environmental impact statements—on a percentage of the long-term mean annual flow of the river, ignoring the fact that the flow of the river has been declining for the last 35 years due to shrinkage of the Athabasca Glacier by 25% and due to increased evapotranspiration in the basin as the water runs from the east slopes in the long trek across Alberta towards the oil sands. They're sometimes cited by industry as 2.2% of long-term average flows, but that's a meaningless figure. The water scientists around the world now believe that stationarity is dead. By this they mean that the amounts of water we've seen in rivers and lakes in the past is no indication of what we're going to see in the future because of the changing climate.
So using an average flow over a long period of time has two serious flaws. One is that the winter flows are much less than the summer, ten times or more less than the summer and spring flows, and it's the winter flows that are critical in protecting ecosystems in the river. The trends have been quite remarkable, as in some other rivers in southern parts of Canada. Average summer flows have declined 33% since 1970 and the minimum flows in winter, which is more worrisome, have declined by 27% in the most recent decade compared to the decade of the seventies.
These trends are bound to continue and may accelerate because of the decline in the glacier that feeds the river and the headwaters, the Athabasca Glacier, and acceleration of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases were going up about 1.6 parts per million per year up until 2000. Since 2000 they've been going up at 1.9 parts per million per year.
Now, it's possible that the current economic downturn will give a little blip, but I don't think it's going to last for long. I think we're on a path towards much more rapid increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because of increased emissions.
The drought in the early 2000s that helped cause the decline in flow was quite modest compared to past droughts, according to tree ring analysis, and is likely to be a very modest drought compared to future droughts if the climate change projections are anywhere close to right.
The winter flows are the lowest of the year, and Alberta has begun to recognize the importance of trying to maintain those flows in the winter. Their allocations to date don't take that into account. They've now developed a scheme to reduce the amount of water the oil sands projects take in the winter months to try to protect ecosystems. But if you look at the data, this means that in a typical year in the last little while, the oil sands projects would have only half of the water they say they're going to need with full development of the oil sands. If it's a very acute situation, they would have only about one third of the water they've projected they will need in the future for full development.
You have to recognize that only about 10% of the water withdrawn is returned to the river, since it becomes too polluted in the processing to do so. It's dumped into these huge tailing ponds or lakes that now cover 50 square kilometres or more. These lakes have high concentrations of toxic naphthenic acids and other contaminants, as many migratory birds have discovered. They also mobilize arsenic from natural sources in the watershed through the processes being used.
While reliable data are difficult to obtain because there is a lack of independent monitoring in the system, a presentation in Houston in 2007 indicated that these contaminants are seeping into groundwater and occurring in the sediments of the river already.
You have to recognize that the Athabasca is the most southern tributary of the Mackenzie River basin, and flows northward into the Arctic. The impacts of oil sands takings or water takings, both groundwater and surface water, on the flows of the Athabasca River northward into the Mackenzie have not really been taken into account.
My personal recommendation to you is that the federal government try to help ensure that under the Mackenzie basin agreement, negotiations are completed on a binding water-sharing and water quality protection agreement between Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, B.C., and the Yukon.
Secondly, the Government of Alberta should consider withholding approval of any additional oil sands projects and related water-taking licences until the most critical of these issues raised by the Alberta Research Council are really addressed, and substantial water conservation measures are implemented in the project. I've heard that Suncor has reduced its water demand by about 30%. Let's get them all doing that, for goodness' sake.
Assurances also need to be made that the in-stream flow needs can be met to protect ecosystems and public health in the lower Athabasca, in the face of the changing climate and the declining flow of the Athabasca River. The companies need to reduce their water demands through a number of processes, which they know a lot more about than I do.
Since the oil sands projects are likely to be most adversely affected by climate change, they should redouble their efforts or make strong efforts to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions so they aren't contributing to the problem that will affect them in the very near future, and that is affecting them now.
The other thing is that we're looking at the water, but emissions from the developments into the atmosphere have effects on water downwind in Saskatchewan and in the Northwest Territories through airborne transport of pollutants such as acid rain and other things.
Those are my suggestions for improved federal involvement in this project.